and then, And Then, AND THEN

I have a pet hate when it comes to writing. It’s a three letter word that I find, quite frankly, rude. That word is: And.

Is there another word in the English language as demanding as ‘and?’ It is a question in its own right, forcing you to insert another phrase to form a full sentence, or the final item on a list. Maybe I don’t want to have a final item on my list you insolent little word. Maybe, just maybe, I would rather have two short, neat sentences than one long sentence made up of conjoined phrases.

My other issue with this little demon is laziness. It is far easier to describe something using two or three words connected with ‘and” then it is to find one that is all encompassing. For example, “He looked downhearted and wistful.” is a lot easier to write then getting off your bum to use a dictionary or thesaurus to find a word that means both.

So, just to annoy the bastard, I set myself a challenge. This week I used the word at the end of a phrase. I can’t even call it a sentence as it has no full stop; the line of text simply ends with that rude little word. What I found surprising was how well it worked! By ending the phrase with an open ‘and’ followed by a line of dialogue the pace shot up, along with the tension. I never thought that a pet hate (a silly one too, I freely admit) would lead to such a victory in atmospherics.

I was so jubilant that I almost forgave it its impertinence. Almost.

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A year of lessons learnt

This time last year I was about to submit my novel for the first time. What a feeling, this incredible soap bubble of delicate hope, tipped off by nerves and just a little anguish. After all, at least one of the agents would turn me down and I had no idea how I would take the rejection.

But I only needed one, just one person to say yes.

And then they all said no.

So a year on I find myself in a strangely familiar place. Soon I will be sending my submission off to the big bad world of literary agents. It got me thinking, what has changed since the last time?

Nothing, in terms of the world of publishing, but everything in terms of my outlook. I thought I would share some of these little nuggets in case any of you are about to embark on the wonderful journey of novel writing.

  1. Rejection sucks balls. BUT it is not the end of the world. Yes, I cried often and some of them were brutal, but who cares? Not everyone is going to like what I write, just as I do not like everything I read but that doesn’t stop me from reading, and rejections will not stop me from writing.
  2. Be aware of the reader experience. I have learnt a lot about this over the last year, particularly making the text as reader-friendly as possible whether that means upping the pace of a scene, spending more time on characterisation or simply subbing back on the narrative. Write for yourself; re-write for your reader.
  3. Be realistic. I’m aware that just because I feel ready (nearly) to submit my novel does not mean that it will be picked up. It may take another year of rewrites, another two years, who knows? I am also (rather painfully) aware that this may not be this novel that gets published at all. It may be my next one, or my tenth.

Above all I have learnt to be resilient and to persevere, to keep working and re-writing, to keep seeking advice and criticism from wherever I can and that is why I have kept the most important lesson I’ve learnt until last.

     4. Never give up.

 

To end or to epilogue

One question looms over my head, and it’s one I’ve been avoiding: do I end my novel neatly at the final chapter, or do I add an epilogue?

My gut reaction is the former, leaving enough lingering question to keep the reader guessing what may happen and give them the freedom to decide. Truth be told, I’m not a big epilogue fan. I find that ninety percent of them are weak, giving me too much information in too short a passage but, most annoyingly, they tend to answer all the questions I would rather contemplate myself.

A classic example is Ken Follett’s Whiteout; a thriller I thoroughly recommend. That is, except for the epilogue. Nothing is left to the imagination; it tells you exactly what happened in the year between the final chapter and the epilogue, answering all those big questions. I felt robbed. ROBBED!

Two of my favourite novels, Our Endless Numbered Days, The Quality of Silence have no epilogue, and what a treat! I loved that there were so many questions over which I could day dream. It was like a gift, being entrusted with the future of characters that had been so painstakingly created by the author. I’ve done my part, Fuller and Lupton seem to say, now you decide how they get home, how they fix themselves, how they live out the rest of their lives. Would these novels have been so good if all those questions had been answered? Absolutely not.

But then, just as I’ve made up my mind not to include one, I am reminded of Sharon Bolton’s Little Black Lies. You read the word Epilogue, you think the book is over saved for a few happy-ever-after confirmations and then BAM it smacks you in the face with the best plot twist EVER. It is, simply, pure genius, reminding me how effective an epilogue can be in the right situation.

I fear I shall be contemplating for some time. Ultimately I want my story to linger with the reader, to have some answers that only they can provide. But maybe, just maybe, I’ll follow in Bolton’s footsteps and leave a few surprises at the end.

You, my friends, will have to wait and see!

I have a nemesis…

      …and its name is foreshadowing

True to its name it is a faceless cloud of angst that hangs over me during the editing process. Why is it my nemesis? Because I find it so damn tricky to get right.

Foreshadowing is the art (and it really is an art) of hinting at what is to come so that, when those big twists and defining moments happen, the reader believes it whilst still being floored by the said twist. It is so tricky because, to get it really spot on, the reader should be unaware that they are being prepared for a major plot event. And, of course, you don’t want to give those twists away too early; you still want your reader to have that “oh my goodness!” moment.

There are many subtle ways this can be done: dialogue, the internal monologue of your protagonist, using changes in weather/setting/scenery to reflect or contrast the changing events in the story, increasing tension in the lead up to the event (using action, dialogue, narrative structure etc) or by showing a character acting out the traits that the forthcoming event depends on, but to a lesser degree. So if, for instant, the twist depends on a character lying, show (always show, I have to remind myself, never tell) them lying on a smaller scale, thereby subtly preparing the reader for this character lying again further on in the story.

There are so many tools you can use, so surely it should be easy? Wrong. Again, this is a falling point for me as I can never decide which, or how many, of the techniques to use. And they shouldn’t be individually overused, so getting the balance right is also important.

You can begin to see why I find it so difficult.

I’m on the home straight. I remind myself of this when I start to lose faith. I have done the ninth re-write and I am really happy with it. Now I just need to iron it out with some editing, add a few elements here and there to improve the reader’s experience and make it shine. It’s just about patience, perseverance and hard work and I will master this foreshadowing jazz.

It’ll be easy, right?

Revenge is best served fictionalized…

 

  I have had an eventful Christmas break: a wonderful holiday seeing friends and family in Ireland, and some not so wonderful calamities to deal with along the way. A personal item, holding a great deal of sentimental value, was lost.

Ever the opportunist I turned the latter into a chance to improve my writing, a bit of unexpected research if you like. I made notes on the feeling of realising it was lost, that I would never see it again, the disappointment. What I didn’t expect, however, was that it was about to get a lot more interesting.

Imagine my surprise when, searching on eBay for a similar item to replace the lost one, I came across MY ITEM. Indisputably mine.

So now I have the chance to not only record how it feels to lose something sentimentally precious, but also the experience of talking to the police in an official capacity. The way my heartbeat increased when my call was answered, the flush in my cheeks as I explained what had happened, the quiver in my voice. The anger in my stomach, like hot tea taken too hastily.

It’s in their hands now and I hope they can help.

What I am left with is another feeling, something else to jot down and use later perhaps. The realisation that someone had had their hands on my belongings is like a dirty fingernail tracing my spine. They have riffled through what is mine and taken what they wanted, thrown away what they did not. What has happened to the picture of my dear children? Or the tiny bracelet my daughter made me, so I could think of her whilst she was at school? Or the first photograph I had ever taken of my husband, original and irreplaceable and now lost. Did this person look at them before throwing them away? Did their fingerprints overlap my own, my daughter’s? Or did they not pause at all, but just empty them out as rubbish?

There are hot little tears behind my eyes whenever I think of it. Tears fuelled by anger, disgust at this callous act. A little sadness.

I am forever looking for the silver lining and I have at least found one. I write thrillers. Dark, twisty psychological thrillers. So I will get my revenge, even if it’s only in fiction.