Meet Frankie…my brother…the video narrator

frankie1.2Meet my brother Frankie! He’s done me some really big favors in my life, not least agreeing to read my stories (after much cajoling on my part, and the agreement I’d buy him an all-expenses paid trip to America). Watch this space, Frankie!

Frankie is a video commentator on my stories, which he delivers with astute honesty, sometimes a little too much honesty. I value his opinion, even if it’s negative and cynical. The boy speaks from the heart. If he doesn’t like a story he doesn’t just say so, he tells you why. Now that’s feedback.

So far, Frankie has appeared in four videos for Rising Apes, Falling Angels, my first collection of nine stories. No doubt he’ll also appear in the remaining five videos.

Voila Frankie’s videos and links to the associated stories:

Trio 1, The Man in the Gray Tie and Other Crimes:

Trio 2, A Slice of the Adirondacks and Other Capers:

Trio 3, Driving the Bully Home and Other Dreams:

Drafting…the door closed and the door open

Drafts...the door open and the door closedIt’s only recently that my drafting process has reached a steady state. I used to not think about drafts at all, or re-draft continually (even worse). I now realize that Stephen King (yes, that Stephen King) has the two best approaches to the drafting process. The man knows.

If you’ve read King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, you’ll know the following. There’s no better book about writing: it’s concise, entertaining, and the advice clearly works. Note to self: read it again. The second half is equally gripping, detailing the story of King’s comeback from being badly injured after being hit by a truck, his personal road to recovery and, of course, back to writing.

The first idea is King’s notion of “two drafts and a polish.”  I was surprised to discover that after experimenting with various approaches, I’ve ended up in the same place. All my stories and novels pretty much go through two drafts and a polish. The first draft is to get the story out, the skeleton, to get from beginning to end, preferably through the middle. The idea is therethe “situation” (another King-ism)and surrounded by the other most important elements, the characters, the setting, and the story. On the second draft, you tighten and expand, but you are also daring: throw out whole sections, or add new scenes. The (reread and) polish is just what it suggests: the rough edges smoothed out, words cut, transitions improved, and the mechanics double-checked.

In conjunction with “two drafts and a polish,” the second idea is to write with the door first closed, then opened. The door is not literally closed (but it helps). This is also King’s idea: to write with the door figuratively closed is to seal yourself off from the world. The story is entirely yours, with no input. No one is looking over your shoulder. No readers. Just you and the page. The writer’s paradise and nightmare in one…. But then, after you have the first draft, you let the world in. In other words, you find a reader, you seek advice (always a revelation), and you listen to the feedback.

I actually do something more developed, but essentially the same. I allow feedback during a first draftI open the door early. This means I get to test out my idea, ideally strengthen it, before a first draft is complete. It can sometimes create a better idea.

For example, I was stuck with how to continue my story “A Slice of the Adirondacks,” set in the vast Adirondack State Park in upstate New York. My wife is from Ithaca, New York and has visited the Adirondacks her whole life. So I sought early advice while writing the first draft.

A Slice of the Adirondacks” is a story about neighbors and the threat of abduction. Some kids go missing and a creepy old man who swims the lake each morning is implicated. But what really happened? Getting a sense of the geography of the area helped me to finish the story. I needed to know what would happen to Walter (the old man) and Chester (the boy) at the end.

The moral: arguably, drafting involves adapting writing rules. Yes, even those of Stephen King’s. But I still do two drafts and a polish, as Mr. King advises.

What have you guys learned about drafting? First and second drafts? Polishing? What about the writing advice during the ‘door open’ moment? Does that invariably improve the story, or over-challenge the original idea?

Introducing “The Last Page of Friendship” (Trio 1, Story 3)

Rock, Paper, Scissors --- Image by © Royalty-Free/CorbisThis story was inspired by two events, the first being a visit to Seattle,which plays a large part in the story, from downtown and the Space Needle, the infamous drizzly weather, to the ferry over to Bainbridge Island, a secluded an affluent enclave where you wouldn’t expect bad things to happen.

The Last Page of Friendship” is the tale of two middle-aged women, old friends who have reached a plateau in life: married, bored, and seeking career revitalization. What better way than becoming writers for redeeming their flagging egos, shoring up their reputations, and giving a competitive jolt to their friendship. Only things go too far…

Which brings me to the other aspect of the story, namely a percolating interest in the case of Juliet Hulme, who along with her adolescent best friend, Pauline Parker murdered Parker’s mother, Honorah Rieper. The fact that Juliet Hulme went on to become best-selling crime novelist Anne Perry, is another twist in the real-life tale. (Her story was adapted into Peter Jackson’s 1994 movie Heavenly Creatures starring Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey).

Rather than involve intervening parents, “The Last Page of Friendship” makes the women middle-aged, and uses Seattle as a backdrop. The engine of the crime is their literary rivalry, which could only form in the cauldron of an over-intense friendship. People seem to be more ardent on oneupmanship when it focuses on those in their inner circle. A little schadenfreude never hurt anyone. 🙂 And these women are not used to losing.

What could possibly go wrong?

The importance of readers for work-in-progress…

Importance of ReadersWriting for years, I’ve learned the hard way that I make mistakes. Lots of them. In fact, it’s so easy to make mistakes, you can spend all your time correcting past ones when you should be writing new material.

Errors are there to be corrected, but wouldn’t it be far nicer to write on, a little less haunted? James Joyce once said: “I don’t make mistakes. My mistakes are the portals of discovery.” I love the sentiment, but arguably I’m not James Joyce (last time I looked).

One answer is to try and get readers for your work. In the past, I’ve baulked. What, showing my work to someone? I had to get over this. If you can’t show work-in-progress, how will you ever release writing to the big, bad world? My advice is to just get two readers.

Why two? Well, it’s enough to manage. Not only do you have to write to a schedule, you have to incorporate their edits. That’s the idea: they comment at the macro level (characters, story, setting) and micro (language, pace, typos), and you have to interpret it all.

I’m very grateful to my two readers currently offering feedback on Rising Apes, Falling Angels. I offer them a small fee per story, and in return I plan a schedule of turnaround dates. I leave it open what they work on exactly: I’m happy for them to read the story, and focus on whatever strikes them as needing most work, including what I did well (something!). It’s good to know what you write well, in order to write more of it. Of course, it’s even better to know what’s pretty poor, in order to rewrite or cut.

Readers also notice factual and continuity errors. One of my readers noticed a continuity mistake in (He) Said, (She) Said, a story about consent (or perhaps lack of) from The Man in the Gray Tie and Other Crimes. Here’s the reader’s comment:

Alsoyou make such a deal out of Danny not having his watch on at the bar and on the walk home but you say that he clicked his watch on after the non-rape-rape encounter…not sure if I misread this but I think you may have made a little slip up.

Of course, in a story where facts and point of view are paramount, I hadn’t intended the error. Danny will no longer have a magically appearing watch, given he never brought it out to the bar in the first place.

Just as important, readers pass opinion on believability and levels of excitement or apathy.

Ultimately, having readers of drafts ‘in your corner’ is a social connection for the isolating business of the daily writing grind. It’s a way of connecting with ‘real readers’ (which they are too, of course). That’s what writing is all about“only connect,” as E. M. Forster said.

So bringing the process forward is both professional and a step toward answering messages from more people, once the time comes.

Happy reader hunting!

 

Introducing “(He) Said, (She) Said” (Trio 1, Story 2)

beer-wineThis story was influenced by a 2014 court case at the Old Bailey, London in which a public schoolboy was accused of raping an ex-classmate. There were also a spate of similar stories in the US, often on college campuses or fraternity houses, and a debate grew around the subject, particularly the idea of consent. (According to the University of Georgia’s University Health Center, “consent is sexy,” the strange notion of using sexual appeal in trying to get college kids excited about asking permission.)

The accused man in the London case, Archie Reed, was eventually cleared of all charges, which is not to say that plenty of cases have judgement passed that neither side feels satisfied by. There must always be a friction in such cases, two sides to one story, often taking place in confined space and time, and yet resulting in such polarizing, violently different interpretations, especially once the law gets involved.

In effect, the story “(He) Said, (She) Said” grew out of these media stories, particularly the Archie Reed case, although ultimately the story’s intent is to remain finely balanced over the question of guilt, on both sides, as well as other ideas of reconciliation, remorse, memory, and reputation, especially among friends.

It’s an ominous subject, and yet certain absurdities are revealed from such cases, especially in the case of an acquittal. They becomes tales of character and personalities, of people unleashing forces more powerful than their ability to control — forces of social, legal, and individual judgement.

Judge for yourselves!