BOOK LAUNCH AT THE SHREWSBURY COFFEEHOUSE (Blog Post Revisited)

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Until a fortnight ago I’d never attended a book launch. Sometimes I was in a hurry and just noticed one happening as I passed Waterstone’s or I’d seen them advertised and wasn’t much interested. And they were all of the turn up, buy, and get it signed variety.

A few months ago I was kindly invited to one. I was tempted because I would have very much liked to see the house – pretty much a castle really – and grounds. It belongs to an ennobled person I’ve met once or twice and who had self-published a lengthy book of poetry about his ancestors.

Like a spy in the night I did a bit of surreptitious checking and discovered the order of service. On arrival you received a conducted tour of the house and immediate grounds and then assembled in the library and were given one glass of white wine. The way I drink that wouldn’t have lasted long but that was all you got.

There would then be a speech by a quite well known associate of the author – many local dignitaries would be present it seems – and then the great man himself would talk about the book and read extracts.

While these were still fresh in your mind there would be a sort of shuffle to a table laden with his work and then everyone, and I mean everyone, would pick up a copy; pay for it – and with full colour illustrations these were definitely not cheap – then present it for signing and afterwards disperse.

Well, I did think about it but not for long. It might have been different if I ‘do’ poetry but sadly I’ve never been able to appreciate it much unless it’s something like Hiawatha or The Burial of Sir John Moore. You know: the sort of thing that stirs the blood a bit. But these – I had seen a few promo passages – were more introspective, contemplative, and without much rhyming.

So I politely declined. I was pleased to hear later it went very well; plenty of books were sold and the tour was lengthy, if a little chaotic when the guide lost her way for a while!

Then, rather like the number 27 bus another invitation turned up. Again the author, John Comerford, is someone I know slightly. His novel, which I have not yet read, is What Blind Customers and is available here http://bit.ly/YZIedm The venue was The Coffeehouse, a place I visit anyway where the service, coffee, food and most of all atmosphere hit the spot. I decided to go to this one; I’d know one or two people there and it would be good to congratulate John on getting published.

I met him as soon as I walked in. He didn’t know I’d got a book on Kindle and despite the hubbub insisted on looking at the reviews and reading the synopsis there and then. Quickly he was whisked away: he used to lecture at Shrewsbury Sixth Form College and there were many of his former students present, together with musicians, photographers, poets, and Rob Savage, a very up and coming film director. [Another candidate I hope for deciding one day he just has to film Project Overkill.]

John welcomed us all and very kindly included me in his long list of arts associated people there. He then launched into an excellent guitar / vocal section with one of the many talented musicians. Next came a former student who is destined to become an excellent stand-up comedian – I am so sorry I did not take a note of the names – and then there were more musical acts.

After that, selected guests read extracts from his novel – which I found amusing and clever and demonstrating a deep understanding for words and doubles entendres. There was genuine merriment in the room and the atmosphere was Let’s Party. I duly complied with a large glass of excellent Merlot; my companions wanted coffee and that was excellent too.

It went on with more of the same; the staff volunteering to extend their working day because everyone was having such a great time. Sadly I missed the final acts – including the excellent Chris Quinn whom I’ve heard and enjoyed several times before – because of time.

I remember Ms. J.S-C advertising a launch for Poker Face II which included cakes and freebies and free wrapping of her book as a pressie and wishing I could go, but sadly Northampton was an event too far at the time. It sounded like fun with a launch included. Which is exactly what this was: the author focused on guests having a good time.

So, if ever I have a launch I’m going in that direction. I would need to tap John for names of musicians and Ms. J. S-C for wrapping and freebie ideas.

But more than anything I’d want the guests to enjoy the party.

 

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WRITING UNDER THE INFLUENCE…

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No, this isn’t what you think, although I must confess to occasionally having a glass of elderberry wine close by when I’m having a tough time with a chapter, which happens quite a lot! 

Instead, I’m talking about the influence of other books and writers.

First of all I don’t think it can be avoided, even when every effort is made to do so. For example I’m influenced in ‘my’ style of chapter headings. I like a date stamp and location, which feels a little weird if much of the novel is set in the same place. I’m not keen on chapter titles as such, probably because I’m not very good at them and always think that any I come up with are either meaningless or possible spoilers.

My date stamp / location thing I get from the later novels of James Ellroy, a writer I admire enormously. In his case it makes more sense as the books can move from Hollywood to Las Vegas to New York and so on. Mine are more static, yet still I can’t shake the habit. I only wish I’d been more influenced by, say, John le Carre´ who does an eminently sensible ‘Chapter I’ and so on, which at first and even second glance would be better for me. But somehow I’m stuck on dates and places.

Another thing I find irresistible is to occasionally switch tenses, with a particular penchant for the present tense. In the first draft of Project Overkill I went way over the top with this and can remember the many ‘phone calls from my editor that began “I am vexed by the number of times…” and so on. Many writers do this and I must have read quite a few of them because I liked it big-time, especially in action sequences. When I redrafted Overkill I axed huge chunks of Present in favour of its more sensible relative Past tense, and have not fallen into that particular trap since. I learnt a lot during that episode, which presumably is an example of undue influence providing a good lesson. [Alternatively it probably means never be excessively influenced by anyone else’s style.]

Despite the final sentence above I never use parenthesis in a book because I think it’s lazy. Many other writers happily and successfully use brackets but I will sit for minutes on end redrafting to avoid them. In The Shrewsbury Murders – still in production and which by now you’ll all want to avoid like the plague – I had a lengthy section I was happy with before realising I’d omitted one vital bit of information that I could happily include in brackets. I didn’t of course; instead I rewrote the whole chapter to integrate the snippet into the chronological narrative.

I discussed this with my editor: he rolled his eyes heavenwards and said ‘Why?’ I told him I just don’t do brackets and he sadly gazed into the middle distance. I’m not sure where this aversion originated, but suspect it was novels by Ian Fleming and Raymond Chandler, both of whom wrote clean narratives that told their story without add-ons or supplementary bits of information in brackets.

Speaking of Fleming he had a brilliant pen for short sentence description. My favourite is when he describes a dead body as looking like an empty envelope. Rereading a piece of Murders recently I found I have described one as looking like a vacant room. Not an intentional copy – I don’t do that – but clearly paying homage, and for better or worse I’ve left it in.

I also like those words and lines that you associate immediately with one character.  In Harlot’s Ghost by Norman Mailer you just know one of the agents is unpleasant because he is always telling people to ‘explicate’. So a character you like says something to this guy and the next line of dialogue is “Explicate!”, and you immediately visualise him. I’d love to have a try at that but haven’t got round to it. A famous one of course is “Shaken not stirred.” I don’t think anyone could get away with that but whenever I’ve been tempted to do something similar I get this mental flash involving Ms. J S-C. It is time for her annual thimbleful of wine and she approaches the quivering bartender with an icy stare and growls “Decanted, not from the bottle.” This has happened a few times so it’s her fault I’ve made no progress.

Some influences of course work in a different direction, i.e. you know you’ll avoid them all your writing life. Chief among them is those unfortunate individuals who are found in a pool of their own blood. This is so often repeated over the years through all kinds of media that for a while I used to think it was commonplace for folk to die in a pool of someone else’s. I would imagine hospital and police station situations where one gobsmacked official said to another: “Guess what? Today I had a case when someone died in a pool of their own blood! How often have you seen that?

Close behind are the poor souls who choke on their own vomit, as distinct from someone else’s. This time: “I’ve seen everything now! Someone swallowing their own vomit before some other sod could throw up all over them!”

Yes, I guarantee I’ll never use those.

Another device that fascinates me is multiple endings, where they are told from different standpoints with an epitaph to boot. I’ve no idea why, maybe it’s because having lived with the book so long I’m reluctant to finally let it go. Anyway, until some kind reader of this blog advises me otherwise I’ll claim that as my own.

So I guess I’ve come to the conclusion that given writers all read other writers we all get influences and play with some of them until eventually we find something that is actually us.

[I was of course tempted to write that paragraph with a date stamp, from three different perspectives, and add an epitaph. But instead I’ll just sign off until next time.]

 

ALAN SHAW – WHEN A CHARACTER REFUSES… (Blog Post Revisited)

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Before going back to it in the first week of January I’d last worked on The Shrewsbury Murders for a couple of hours on 23 December. It was hardly creative writing; more a stop-start exercise on a chapter that should have been easy but was now proving stubborn.

What bothered me most was the fact I knew exactly what I wanted it to achieve but I kept hesitating. All I needed to do for the plot was introduce an old cottage in Wales and the mother of Cassie, one of the main characters. Cassie’s mom Penelope was to be something of a forlorn figure, very unwell and plotted to die in the not too distant future. She was late 40s; pale countenance; lonely and overall sad. Like her antecedents she’d known a lot of men but ultimately none had wanted to stay with her.

The cottage came easily enough; I’d actually toured a former mine manager’s cottage during a trip to Wales in August and taken photographs. And I knew what Penelope would look like and pretty much what she’d say. But when I began to write her the oddest thing happened: the image I had kept being replaced by someone vivacious; unlucky, but still hoping for the best. And this person was in robust health with a sense of humour and a hard edge to her. I suddenly had great trouble describing her per the original plan. I could almost feel her behind me hissing ‘I’m not like that!’

So strong was this impression that I decided on impulse to write her in the new unplotted way to see what happened. I’ve had similar things before but only with major characters, and doubtless all other writers have too. I set about it and for the first time that day the words flowed well and the figure behind me relaxed. She’d become attractive, vivacious, and her ‘victim’ aspect had changed to that of someone who realised most of her issues were her own fault. She was also feisty and just a bit sexy. She was definitely not going to die of a ‘wasting disease’ as my plot overview intended.

I discovered she smoked rollups and enjoyed Mike Ambrose’s  cocktails so much she took his recipe for Dry Martinis. She also now had good rapport with Cassie who treated her more as an older pal than a somewhat estranged sick mother. She somehow got herself invited to Shrewsbury where the murders are taking place. The chapter also acquired a ghost that scares Mike but which she is matter of fact and almost humorous about. All this rolled off Microsoft Word as if I’d planned every detail. I felt I’d done the character justice but then realised it was ridiculous to write her this way when it tore up a chunk of plotting and removed rationale for what would happen a couple of chapters further in.

I’m not the most disciplined writer in the world but I’ve plotted Murders carefully and had no reason to interfere with a perfectly acceptable scenario. Writing the novel as planned wasn’t easy so why on earth make it harder at this relatively late stage? Much easier to stick to the original plot: credible in context and providing a neat way to reveal the cottage’s dark secret.

It was very late and I decided to stop and revise it tomorrow. I was annoyed with myself for wasting two hours or so for the pleasure of giving myself unnecessary grief. I had no idea why I’d done it and went to bed feeling distinctly low.

Early Sunday morning I fed the cats, chopped logs for kindle, emptied bins and suddenly had an idea whereby I could give the unwanted section a piece of additional business that would make the overall plot far creepier than my original. But I would still be left with a major structural problem. ‘Don’t be tempted’ I thought, but soon found myself putting the new words into last night’s unwanted section just to see how it read.

Like the other unwelcome words it read well. Nevertheless if I seriously considered keeping it I’d need a clear explanation for the new activities the chapter now contained. The ghost would be difficult but matters preceding it even more so. Again I just wanted to go with the original plot, but there was Penelope reappearing, wagging her finger and insisting she would not be merely an empty vessel; she had as much right to come to life as anyone else in the book.

I gave myself an hour to sort it out or go with plan A. By noon I still couldn’t square it but the new sections remained unchanged. I had no idea why and once again retired in confusion. We had lunch, watched a football match, went for a long walk, lit the fire, washed up; all the usual stuff. By six I was back at the desk and doing more research. If I kept the new stuff I had to find a way to justify the additional Mike / Cassie / Penelope activity and find a credible place for Pen later in the book.

An hour later I had it, and excitedly wrote it out in pencil on scrap paper. I slept better that night; did the final changes Monday morning and now have my cantankerous and rebellious Chapter 10 in the main draft. I’m happy and believe Penelope is too.

I still have no idea how it all happened and just hope none of the other characters decides to rebel. But I am sure, despite the risks of judging your own work, that what I have now is more interesting, varied and a better read than what I would have had originally.

So thanks, Pen: you’ve earned the right to grow wings and take a more permanent place in The Shrewsbury Murders.

I just wish I knew how.