Author: hermione

Show don’t tell

I’ve been reading quite a bit about writing lately, while I wait for my Christmas present, which is time with a professional editor. When writers write about writing it can very easily get luvvy and incestuous and publishers and authors seem to appear disproportionately often in fiction, from Love Actually to Fifty Shades to Misery to Dragon Tattoo. And writers love ‘show don’t tell’. They will go into long, detailed descriptions and then in their seminars they will discuss the difficulty of balancing their ‘art’ with what they are trying to say.

I’m told that if I want to be a writer I have to read a lot, because that’s how I’m going to learn my craft. Thing is, I read slowly, and frankly there aren’t that many books I’ve encountered lately that really grab me. I’ll start one and get bored quite quickly, and the most frequent reason is the long, detailed descriptions, whether it’s of a scene, the intricacies of a piece of machinery, or the minutiae of a piece of action. It seems to me that if it takes a lot longer to read something than to imagine it happening in real time, then you are losing me. Milton lost me very quickly, as did Proust. Sorry, guys. And in Paradise Lost I really did want to know what happens next. Latest one is Banks’s Culture books, though I’m persisting with him for the moment.

As a reader, I don’t want to admire the brushstrokes; I want to follow what’s being communicated. I’m (speaking personally here) not desperately keen on thrillers with lots of jeopardy, and at the other end of the scale I can do without long descriptions of sexual encounters, which is fine if I can skip them without missing the next twist in the story. I’d much rather have a few clues (obviously there have to be enough of them to give the imagination something to chew on) and fill in the gaps myself, than to find myself waiting for the picture to unfold before I can ‘see’ it. That’s like buffering when you’re watching a video. Why aren’t we allowed to put in back story? Is it a fashion thing? If keeping your reader interested is to withhold information and just drop hints about what they need to know, then I’m not in your genre.

Just enough is enough.

New publisher?

Thinking about looking at some kind of professional self-publishing helper, not going to mention any names right now but thinking about what kind of audience I want to tell them I’m aiming at.

Thing is, everyone who reads it seems to see a different book. I suppose it’s at least three different books.

For me, first and foremost it’s the autistic spiritual journey, from the original predicament outlined in the rant at the end of Chapter 3 of Flaming Sword, to his much more laid-back persona at the end of Water of Life. That is the basic project that led me to write the trilogy in the first place. True, Vian already knew he was a bit weird; for me, I only got the validation when I was six decades old.

Secondly there’s the utopian ideal of how to organise a society from scratch – and you can only do it when everyone is at rock bottom to start with – and while it might look very bleeding heart leftie it does make room for people to get rich if they want to. It’s a model I’ve never seen anywhere else and I’m slightly surprised no-one’s actually commented on it, except one friend who said in an email that they wished we had people like that running the country. I don’t yet know whether it’s actually too naive for words, or whether those who might think so have axes to grind.

The third obvious thread is the romance, like a kind of reverse Pride and Prejudice/Pretty Woman. He’s reasonably secure in his limited lifestyle under the Theocracy, she’s high-born but not at all sure of herself because of her own limitations that also translate into high-functioning autism, which is why Vian noticed her in the first place.

What kind of ‘audience’ or ‘genre’ all that translates to is something I have to ask an expert. And I’ve had bad experiences with experts in the past, so we’ll have to see. Like Vian, I’ve mellowed a lot since I began my spiritual search (turning down the sacristan job at my posh boarding school for instance, and being ridiculed by all the loving and giving spiritual groups, Quakers included, that I’ve tried to join over many years since then, coping, not always very well, with the idea that I’m actually born spiritually blind and then finally getting the assessment of Asperger’s Syndrome). I’d better not say a lot more about that because it might constitute a spoiler.

But I think that the kind of people who would enjoy the book would include those who are bothered by the ‘Hard Problem’ (and if you’re not bothered by it you don’t know what it is) and those that are probably to the left in political thinking. People who are interested in autism might look at it but it’s not the kind of autism that most people writing about it recognise. For a start, it’s hyperverbal. But that’s well explained in the book.

We’ll see.

Editing your own work

Proofreading and editing your own work is not easy. You read what you know you wrote. I’ve found small typos months later, having read the work over and over again.

But there are a few tricks you can try. Here are some of them:

  1. Keep the spelling and grammar checker on. It’s wrong often enough but it’s a simple matter to overrule it, just (in Word anyway) right click and select Ignore. It flags up spacing errors and occasionally makes suggestions that are an improvement. A word or name it doesn’t know I usually add to the dictionary. If you’re still not sure about its and it’s and all that sort of thing, ask someone who is completely clear about apostrophes, see point 4.
  2. Give it a few days, even weeks, before you go back to it. Get on with writing new chapters instead.
  3. Put it in a different format. I use Calibre to convert the book into Kindle MOBI format and upload it to my Kindle. When the words appear in a different place on the page, in a different font and on a different screen, typos you’ve missed can jump out at you.
  4. Show it to a friend. I’ve read at least two books that clearly hadn’t been shown to anyone before being published. Big mistake. A friend can point out plot inconsistencies, implausibilities and sheer naffness that you wouldn’t have seen yourself, as well as pointing out typos and awkward turns of phrase.
  5. Well this is really 4a. Choose your friend carefully. It’s your heart and soul you’re asking them to criticise. They need to be confident you won’t be upset. Which just means you need to know how well they know you, and vice versa. There are people I can’t take criticism from, and others I’m quite happy to listen to and take it on board. Like my protagonist, my scorn and contempt detector is on a hair trigger. This is where a professional editor you don’t know can be a problem. Like finding a therapist, you don’t know until you’ve already committed yourself, and I’ve had very bad luck with therapists.
  6. well, 4b. If there’s no one in your entire circle of acquaintance that you’re prepared to show it to, then you probably shouldn’t publish it at all.
  7. Live with the odd typo. I found one in a William Gibson novel.

In praise of self-publishing

13592821_1267634033267823_948898492290551321_nSelf-publishing has been an ideal medium for me, and I’m impressed and astonished at Amazon and CreateSpace and how they’ve made it possible to publish work for Kindle and for print.

I’m no fan of the idea of unfathomably huge global corporations who treat their workers badly and don’t pay their dues, but I do see automation as inevitable and Amazon’s self-publishing setup is truly amazing. Anyone can publish anything (within reason – I think they put it through AI to check it for terrorist manuals and other nasty stuff) and people can buy your book, printed on demand and out the door within hours or simply downloaded on Kindle. No need for a garage full of unsold dead trees, no need for mountains of rejection letters from publishers. The only downside is that it won’t appear piled high in Waterstones.

Of course no publisher means no professional input, and that’s going to show. Editing, even proofreading, your own work is always going to be hampered by the fact that you know what you meant to say and that’s what you read when you go back to it.

Thing is, in my own case I don’t want to ‘be a writer’. I do write, but I’m not a writer. I wrote my trilogy as a project to sort out things in my own mind. I didn’t write for an audience and I haven’t done very much to publicise it. I’m working on a spin-off, but there’s no hurry. I’m also working on a non-fiction book, about woodturning. For me, writing is more of a hobby than a profession, because words are something I can do. This lends itself perfectly to self-publishing, because it’s all being done automatically, it isn’t inconveniencing anyone and there’s no unnecessary printing.

I should point out that after costs, the royalties are pretty pitiful – I get 65p for each book sold. If I were to set a higher price I would get more, but I think seven quid is as much as I would pay for a paperback.

I’m told I should use the hashtag #PoweredByIndie because Amazon are celebrating how wonderful they are this month. So I’m an indie author. Well at my age I’m happy to take on new terminology, and indie means independent, in this case independent of professional editors. Not that I kept the manuscript to myself – feedback is essential. I’ve seen at least one self-published book that had clearly not been shown to anyone before it was published.

And Microsoft Word, that entity that writers love or hate, has been a good friend to me, even if it does get its it’s and its muddled up.

Latest feedback – refreshingly honest and eloquent. Can’t be bad.

Fifty Shades of rant

The Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy doesn’t take up valuable space on my bookcase. That’s because I got the Kindle version, and I loved it. I read it twice, and then dipped into it again, and again. And (well, I’m weird) I did and still do skip through the sex scenes – just keep an eye on them to see how they’re going but they’re not the meat of the story.

It’s a retelling of every woman’s favourite romance – the ordinary, normal woman we can all relate to meets a damaged (but very rich) man who needs to be rescued. It’s Pride and Prejudice and Pretty Woman. I think that it’s had enough coverage for me to be not too worried about spoilers, but the meat of it is that there is nothing submissive about Ana Steele, (or Vivian Ward or Lizzy Bennet) and that is precisely why Grey (or Lewis or Darcy) falls for her. So when I see a journalist say that someone ‘makes Anastasia Steele look like Boadicea’ I know that he hasn’t read the book. More than one friend of mine has said that she won’t read it because ‘it’s about a submissive woman who meets a dominant man’. It’s not. It’s really uplifting precisely because she doesn’t have a submissive bone in her body.

I don’t know why I feel so strongly about that. Perhaps because I wrote a trilogy of my own, albeit very different on all sorts of levels, but when I’m talking to a friend who hasn’t read Fifty Shades (and who might turn out not to be a friend after all in the end) and she can’t let me finish my sentence when I’m trying to say that the point of the story is (interruption, interruption), I think dammit you really don’t know what I’m going to say, why do people always think they know what I’m going to say when they don’t … the point is that he falls in love for the first time ever! The first time ever in his life! He has never known love. Well, he has, but he hasn’t seen it. His adoptive family loves him, but he’s so far unable to wrap his head around that. So, up to now, he’s dealt with relationships according to the code that a predatory older woman had foisted on him when he was a teenager. That was what Ana Steele walked into. The meat of the story is how she dealt with that.

But if it weren’t for the publicity about the dom-sub business I doubt if the trilogy would have ever had the success that it did. No problem with that – anything that sells a book is great. But, like Python’s ‘Life of Brian’, don’t settle on an opinion until you’ve seen what it’s about.

Hermit crab

There’s mention of a hermit crab in WoL, in passing. It came from two things; the first was an encounter with a hermit crab in Plymouth Sound. It was a dull day above the surface but the water was relatively shallow – only a few metres – and there was plenty of light. There was a moment, one of those snapshots the brain remembers, of eye contact with a hermit crab. As you probably well know by now, Aspies don’t do eye contact very well, but a hermit crab is about as non-threatening as you can get. It looked at me, I looked at it, and it was a timeless moment. As if we were equals, I mean really equals, it and I, on its own ground. It wasn’t scuttling away, it was looking at me, this large thing with bubbles coming out of it every few seconds. Not like a staring contest. It was looking at me with what seemed to be detachment. I mean if it was afraid of me it would have either scuttled away or gone into its shell or something. Projection schmojection, but I will never forget it.

The second thing was a piece of footage from David Attenborough, showing a series of hermit crabs literally forming a line in order of shell size. The trigger is the arrival of a new shell on the beach, but they have to wait until everyone in the line has the right size shell to move into. When the biggest crab moves into the new shell, the others each move into the next one up.

Of such things are phrases in books made.

Proof copy has arrived!

WoL proofThe proof copy of Water of Life arrived today. If all goes well it will be available on my Amazon author page ‘within five days’.

And that’s the trilogy complete!

I’m really glad I did it and I think the whole process has really helped me to get my ideas in order. And I want to thank all my kind readers for staying with me this far. I very much hope you enjoy the final stage of the journey.

Water of Life ready to go!

WL coverI have finally finished Water of Life, the culmination of the Poor in Spirit series and the end of the story. Thanks to Steviant for finding the cover image, which is under a Creative Commons licence and continues the butterfly theme.

It’s going through the Amazon publishing process now, both on Kindle and in paperback, as before.

We’ve been given the date 11 July as the Kindle availability date, but experience suggests it will be downloadable well before then. The process is entirely automated; as far as we can see there are no humans involved in the process at all. Perhaps Vian could have thought more about that, but he’s really more preoccupied with the brain and the traditional Hard Problem. At any rate, he’s finally come to terms with his spiritual disability and that’s what matters.

“most people don’t ask ‘why?'”

Among the sentences I’ve heard more than once, including ‘I’m really a loving and giving person but I’ve decided to become more selfish’, which basically can be translated to ‘I’m really a selfish person and I’ve finally decided to acknowledge that’ is this one about why questions.

I remember a ‘group’ once (I don’t do groups and this is partly why) where a person of apparently less than average intellect came up with this statement with the most smug and self-satisfied expression on her face. ‘Most people’, it seems, don’t ask ‘why’ questions.

First of all, yes, I have a problem with the way the concept of ‘most people’ is used. In more than (I would reckon) 90% of cases they are referring to an entity that they despise. ‘Most people’ don’t think about ‘x’, where ‘x’ is the topic under discussion. I heard a Quaker once say that ‘most people’ worship car boot sales rather than God. That’s what I mean.

Sadly, my impairment notwithstanding, I tend to identify with this entity. So when you insult ‘most people’, that’s me you’re talking about. So I look at this oft-repeated statement that ‘most people’ don’t ask why questions and I start to look around.

First of all, what is a why question? It occurred to me that a lot of why questions are actually how questions. A standard undergraduate physics exam question is ‘why is the sky blue?’. The answer is that molecules in the air scatter blue light from the sun more than they scatter red light. So we get more blue light hitting our retinas.

That’s not a why question, it’s a how question. If it were a why question the answer would be along the lines of either God decided to make that our experience or as users of the English language we came to a consensus to call that particular colour blue. Either of those would have failed the exam.

As a shorthand, I personally (you might disagree) look at a why question and see whether it could be rephrased as a ‘how come’ question. How come the sky is blue? Blue photons are scattered more and so they hit our eyes more.

If it’s a real ‘why’ question, it can be translated as ‘for what reason…’

Why did I decide to clear out my wardrobe today?

I was noticing there was a load of stuff in there I haven’t worn for several years.

Why now?

It’s getting too full.

Reasons. Of sorts. Psychologists might be looking at mechanisms – you have a need to clear out your mind so you’re clearing out your wardrobe instead. That is an attempt at turning my decision into a how question. What are the mechanisms by which you came to think that clearing out the clutter in your wardrobe was what you really had decided to do? Blows free will out of the window for a start.

Leaving aside the knowing smirk from my friendly neighbourhood psychologist, I find myself wondering what a why question really is. It seems to me that often enough it’s prompted by a need to apportion blame. Why don’t you talk to me more? Why did you vote Leave? Why did you invade Iraq?

We ask why questions when we can’t understand the thinking behind a decision someone has made. No need to ask why if you already know why. Why questions are about values that don’t fit.

And so the experts have to decide whether this was actually a why question or whether it was in fact a how question after all. The experts have to decide whether we are responsible for our actions or somehow impelled to do them by some mechanism outside our conscious awareness.

No wonder it’s called the ‘hard problem’. But meanwhile, it seems to me that people are asking why questions all the time. And it’s all about assigning responsibility.

And (a separate point entirely) generally someone else’s responsibility.

Water of Life in beta

The final book in the trilogy has been more of a struggle, partly because practically all of the plot elements in the first two just ‘came out’ and now they are putting constraints on the final outcome. It’s a bit like a puzzle, with all the pieces there but a couple of wrinkles in how they fit together. It’s all there, now, except for the penultimate chapter which still needs some work. So I go through my days, and holes in the nights, with Paul and Madelin never far away.

The book is first and foremost a spiritual journey, or if you prefer, a chronicle of how Paul learns to lighten up as he makes new friendships and gets out more. The process becomes a positive feedback loop, where the more he learns to relax with people the more people can be relaxed with him. More than one reader has commented that they don’t identify with him and can’t find any empathy with him. But in Flaming Sword he’s still very bitter and going over old memories. In Coals of Fire he still lapses occasionally but he doesn’t use the F word half as much. All his insights have to be repeated, like a spiral, you learn the same thing again but on a higher level. Eventually it sticks, like the muscle memory in taiji.

He doesn’t do interviews, and Top Gear doesn’t exist any more, but I can imagine Paul being persuaded to be the ‘star in a reasonably priced car’, given that Jeremy Clarkson is always very polite and kind to his guests on the show. I also fantasise about his choices on Desert Island Discs as I drive my lovely eight-year-old MX-5 to my taiji classes with the music playing. None of that is in the book of course. In ‘real life’ (funny I should think of it that way), Madelin drives a 4×4 crossover and if either of them ever owned an MX-5 it would be Madelin. But somehow when I’m driving i’m always Paul.

Of course the way things are going, in 20 years’ time we’ll all be in electric driverless cars, probably not personally owned – you just take the nearest one you find on your smartphone, but I’ve not gone into the futuristic thing in great detail. I sort of think that the twenty-year hiatus in our island’s development has allowed us to resume where we left off when the virus hit. It makes it a lot easier to think about, and to make a thought experiment about how we can build a community that really does include everyone without being blighted by secret police.

Anyway, I want to put in a word for my two kind friends, Anne and Kacy, who have been looking at the third book as it exists so far. I’ve had some very valuable feedback, both on the tiny typos and grammatical ambiguities and on the larger plot theme, and I realise that they can never now really enjoy the final version because they’ve seen it under construction. It was a bigger ask than I realised it was, and my thanks to them are truly heartfelt.

I have basically one more wrinkle to iron out. Thank you for waiting.