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Saturday, 19 April 2014

Writing tip – How to annoy an editor


 
Here are a few home truths that might annoy an editor or publisher and steer a submission towards rejection, despite the content.

Contrary to what many rejected novice writers believe, editors and publishers are human. They have emotions and that’s why they can get annoyed with writers who blatantly ignore or break the basic rules. Yes, there are rules – usually stipulated in the publisher’s website submission guidelines. There are other rules about layout that should be obvious, too, but seemingly are ignored.

If a prospective author is cavalier about their submission, then they’re unlikely to find their work being accepted.

Perhaps prospective authors don’t realise that writing is competitive. Stating the obvious, editors and publishers generally settle on those individuals who deliver on time what is required. Editors are busy people and can devote only so much time to an unsolicited piece. They want it to succeed; they want to find a new voice. They don’t want to reject. So if you don’t want to fail at the first hurdle, bear in mind a few of the factors that might tip your work in the wrong direction – the rejection pile.

Indeed, it could be argued that rules were meant to be broken and walls were meant to be climbed over. Fine: when you know the rules of the game, then you can break them, though only for specific reasons.

Perhaps some writers will say, “Why follow rules and basic layout? I want to show I’m an individual!” Number 6 from The Prisoner would be proud. Still, the fact is that standards are set because they have been established over time and they tend to work by making the process easier to run.  

Basic layout isn’t rocket science. Prospective authors only need to pick up any book from the shelves and the layout is there to see – with two exceptions, double spacing (and right-justification for book MSS).

It shouldn’t need saying, but I’ll emphasise that writers need to do their market research. If the publisher you’re aiming at uses double-quote marks for speech, you should in your MS; if the publisher is not consistent with his output, then don’t worry. Yes, as a general rule, UK publishers prefer single and US publishers opt for double; but there are exceptions; check.

Editors hate it when indents are lacking in a submission when a little market research would show they’re the norm. Unless the publisher or periodical doesn’t use paragraph indents, your work should be indented. Yes, online publishing tends to favour no indents and a space between paragraphs (as in this blog) – that’s for ease of reading on-screen – it is not appropriate for a book MS or any article submission, unless stipulated.

I’ve encountered a few specific bugbears over the years; and the odd instance is not liable to justify a rejection, but if repeated too often, then it’s probably destined for the bin.
 
‘Baker stormed out the room. When he had left, Atkins sank back in his chair.’

What the writer meant was, when Baker had left, but the sentence implies that Atkins had left. This is a common error, committed even by established writers. When re-reading for the final self-edit, check the sense of your sentences.
 
‘Go away!’ he hissed. This is a pet hate because to hiss is to make a sibilant sound, like that of a snake, which means there have to be some esses in the spoken words. Again, careless published authors commit this error.
 
Lengthy speech is very annoying. Few people in real life talk non-stop for what amounts to half a page or more. This is lazy writing, dumping information without thought. Fine, some established writers might get away with it, but it is to be abhorred. If characters are speaking, natural conversation involves interruptions, gestures, asides – all breaking up the otherwise lengthy speech. Try to remember that any paragraph of unbroken dialogue over three lines in length is suspect.

Information downloading (infodumping) should be avoided. A long paragraph, often in speech, outlining some technical aspect of the story, seems like a good way to get the information across. But it kills the story because it’s dry and obvious – and it’s lazy writing. Drip-feed the information subtly, instead.

Character references in speech.
 
‘Yes, Dillon, I know it’s difficult.’

‘I agree, Matthew, but what can we do?’

‘Well, Dillon, let’s go away!’

This constant character referencing in speech is annoying and tedious. Usually it should be obvious who is speaking by the context, the manner of the speech or perhaps a preceding attributed gesture, for example,

Matthew smiled. ‘Yes, I know it’s difficult.’

The same goes for using a narrative tag after each speech – again, it should be obvious most of the time who is speaking.

Over-use of a character-name. When involved in the narrative from the POV of a character, it is not necessary to constantly insert the character’s name. ‘He’ is sufficient, if anything is needed at all. This over-use constantly pulls the reader out of the character’s viewpoint and shouts ‘author intrusion, author intrusion…’.

Dull writing ends up being rejected. What is dull? Bland narrative. Use active rather than inactive descriptions. ‘The man was tall’ is inactive. ‘The man strode purposefully, his tall frame quite intimidating’ is active.

We humans are emotional folk, so it stands to reason that our fictional characters have emotions too. Denying them any emotional response makes them wooden and destined for the rejection bin.

‘The man moved across the room and opened the filing cabinet.’ This is emotionless and tells the reader very little; we’re watching a movie, but are not involved. Wherever possible, include emotion in your description.  ‘The man hesitantly crossed the room, his gait a little unsteady as he approached the filing cabinet. Warily, he opened the drawer…’ Not a great improvement, but the man now has some feeling.
 
A flat storyline with little in the way of conflict is going to end up being rejected. Without conflict, there is no plot and no pressure for the main character, and essentially no story.
 
Exposition for the reader’s benefit is not only unwelcome, it turns off most editors. No two characters should ever mention in dialogue anything that both of them know already.

Pointless dialogue is tedious and slows the pace. Dialogue is used to develop character, heighten the suspense or dramatic tension of a scene – conflict again.
 
Using the wrong words can be forgiven, perhaps, but I’d advocate that writers should try to avoid the usual pitfalls. One bestselling writer uses ‘adverse’ when he means ‘averse,’ for example. I could cite several.
 
Word repetition (what can be termed word echo) shows up lazy or inadequate self-editing and may be excused unless it becomes frequent and thus annoying, in which case it may point to the rejection bin.

Rejection isn’t the end, of course. Every rejection is subjective. Still, if they start to mount up, sometimes the text bears reassessment. Perseverance, with critical self-editing, is the watchword. Remember some of the greats have been rejected. In response to a submission by Rudyard Kipling, the publisher’s rejection stated: ‘I’m sorry, Mr Kipling, but you just don’t know how to use the English language.’

A good many of these points, plus others, are touched upon in my genre fiction writing guide, Write a Western in 30 Days.
 
Purchase from Amazon.co.uk here - currently (as of today) #96 out of top 100 on this site

Friday, 18 April 2014

Saturday Story - 'A Shared Experience'


A SHARED EXPERIENCE
  
Nik Morton

A story for Easter

 


My brethren once numbered in the millions.  But that was a long time ago.

Racial memory tells me of great apes who could swing through our forests from dawn until dusk for many days, seemingly without end. 

Now, though, there are no forests here, and no great apes.  Only desert. Our memory goes back even further than mankind's.  We trees share in each other's experiences, down the years, until perhaps the last tree is no more.

            The decimation of our kind began when men started to build ships.  The Phoenicians, the Greeks and Romans, the Turks, all amassed formidable fleets at the expense of our great forests in North Africa. 

Denuded of trees, the land degenerated into desert.

Through our worldwide network we have learned all of mankind's languages, though some of their naming-words are beyond our combined experience: it is a veritable Babel - that's a term from one of their great books.

Unlike we brethren of the green, mankind forgot how to commune through the ether; and they never harnessed a racial memory.  Instead they discovered the transmission of thoughts by written means, first on stone then papyrus and parchment and paper made from our wood.  This written medium enabled them to communicate from beyond the grave: they considered that these invented books were a kind of immortality. 

            And, inevitably, their hunger for printed words took its toll on our brethren too.

            I remember so much, as do we all.  Our lives do not stop when we are felled.  Our senses enter another, different phase, that is all.  We can still perceive through our pores, detecting sounds, smells, temperatures and even, sometimes, thoughts.  If fire takes one of us while we are rooted in the earth, then that tree is no more; but its experience of the world is not lost, its soul is within us all.


The carpenter's hands were gentle, almost loving as he shaped a part of me into a baby's crib.  He was a gifted artisan and though I was shaved into many separate pieces I could not blame him: out of my natural perfection he carved another beautiful form.  A part of my life would share in the growth of another being, imbibing the infant's intellectual awakening.

Other parts of me were transported around the land of Galilee, bartered for and even sometimes fought over.  One beam that was me became soaked in a foolish man's blood: the stain seemed to sum up so much of our relationship with mankind. 

In exchange for the decimation of our millions we shared in new experiences and feelings.

            Another part of me encountered that same carpenter a number of years later.  His blood stained me too as he painfully struggled to carry me on his back up the hill to Golgotha. 

            Strangely, I ached, as did we all in his shared experience, as we sensed the carpenter's agony.

Yet there was no hate in him.  He was strong: I could feel a power capable of felling all our kind at an instant's thought.  But he was in control.  He knew what he was doing.  His purpose was steadfast, inspiring.

All my brethren in the vicinity swayed as the precursor of a storm whipped their leaves.  This was something we had never known before. 

Of all the multitudes of people who had impinged on our very old memory, none had affected us like this man.

When they crucified the carpenter, nailing his wrists into my wood, and his essence mingled with my own, I knew that no matter what privations our brethren suffered, we would survive and even flourish. 

A time would come when trees would be nurtured in their own habitat. 

It would take a long time in arriving, but it would come to pass.

            And I know one day I shall see that carpenter again.

 
***

Previously published in the Easter edition of the Costa TV Times, 2010.

Copyright Nik Morton, 2014.

***

My collection of Spanish themed crime short stories, Spanish Eye, is available from Crooked Cat Publishing.
 
Spanish Eye, which can be purchased post-free world-wide from here
and the Spanish Eye e-book bought from Amazon com here
or bought from Amazon co uk here

 

 

 

 

Thursday, 17 April 2014

FFB - Ace of Knaves

On April 15, 21 years ago, Leslie Charteris died, aged 85. He was one of the very few authors who created a character that became a household name. In my library I have a selection of his earlier Saint books, all paperbacks, collected in the 1960s. So it seems fitting today, since it’s that weekly ‘forgotten book Friday’ time again, to look at one of his books.

 
After some thirty years or so, it was marvellous to reacquaint myself with the Saint, Patricia Holm, Hoppy Uniatz, Peter Quentin, Orace and Inspector Claud Eustace Teal. While I enjoyed Charteris’s later and shorter moral tales, I much prefer the older stories. Printed in 1937, this was the 17th book in the series and has a surprisingly grim edge to it that is lacking in the modern versions translated to TV.

The three novellas are told in Charteris’s inimitable omniscient narrator’s voice, often with his tongue in his cheek. He had a highly amusing turn of phrase: ‘They studied him with the detached curiosity of surgeons inspecting a new kind of tumour revealed by an operation.’

Charteris was also a keen observer and used language to good effect and because of this he’s a pleasure to read. Take, for example, a paragraph from Chapter 8: ‘The boisterous human fellowship of the Broken Sword was swallowed up in an abyss as he closed the door of the public bar behind him. As if he had been suddenly transported a thousand miles instead of merely over the breadth of a threshold, he passed into a different world as he faced the quiet road outside – a world where strange and horrible things happened such as the men he had left behind him to their beer would never believe, a world where a man’s life hung on the flicker of an eyelid and the splitting of a second, and where there was adventure of a keen corrosive kind such as the simple heroes of mythology had never lived to see. The Saint’s eyes swept left and right before he stepped out of the shadow of the porch, but he saw nothing instantly threatening…’ Great stuff!

See also my blogs November 2013 blogs:


and
 

The entire canon (bar the first book) have been republished; please refer to this website for more details...

 
***
 
In some small measure, my character Leon Cazador pays homage to Simon Templar, as he too attempts to right wrongs and make the ungodly pay. Twenty-two of his tales can be found in Spanish Eye, published by Crooked Cat.
 
Spanish Eye (Crooked Cat Publishing)
 
From Amazon.com here
From Amazon.co.uk here
 
 
 

 

 

 

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

A writer’s research – Morocco

When researching a place for a novel, it takes a little time. Even if you’ve been there, it’s prudent to do some research to back up reminiscences, as memory can prove faulty. True, research sources can be at fault, too. The ultimate fall-back argument is that “it’s fiction”, so artistic licence applies!

Still, it’s good to strive for as much accuracy as possible.

I’ve started my next novel (one of two works in progress), which is predominantly set in Morocco. I’ve been there, but need more detail than I could dredge from memory and photographs. A great deal of the following won’t appear in the book, but it’s certainly interesting!

Tangier
A fascinating history; this port has been inhabited for over 2,500 years, a strategic point on the strait that separates Europe from Africa. They all been and gone: Phoenicians, Romans, Visigoths, Arabs, Portuguese, British and Spanish, among others. Tangier changed hands often, until the English were ousted in 1679.

The Moroccans had control then until the mid-19th century, when the port became the object of great rivalry between the French, Spanish, Italians, British and Germans. The situation was partially resolved by the Treaty of Algeciras in 1906, which meant the British were paid off with Egypt and the Italians with Libya, leaving the three remaining powers vying over the spoils. Morocco became a French protectorate in 1912, with Spain receiving control of parts of the north.

Then in 1923 the status of Tangier and the surrounding countryside altered again and was declared an ‘international zone’ controlled by resident diplomatic agents of France, Spain, Britain, Portugal, Sweden, Holland, Belgium, Italy and the USA. (A few other powers had got in on the act, clearly...) And that was more or less how it stayed until Morocco received independence from France and Spain in 1956 after years of violent struggle.. 

Literary links
Tangier has always had a reputation for notoriety. Samuel Pepys complained of the sleaziness and debauchery of the then British possession. Mark Twain visited in 1867.

‘When a man steals cattle, they cut off his right hand and left leg and nail them up in the marketplace as a warning to everybody. Their surgery is not artistic. They slice around the bone a little, then break off the limb. Sometimes the patient gets well; but, as a general thing, he don't. However, the Moorish heart is stout. The Moors were always brave. These criminals undergo the fearful operation without a wince, without a tremor of any kind, without a groan! No amount of suffering can bring down the pride of a Moor or make him shame his dignity with a cry.’ – The Innocents Abroad, Chapter 9. (1869)


Paul Bowles (author of The Sheltering Sky) landed here in the 1930s, made it his home in 1947 and his home became a stop-over point for visitors to the city. He was encouraged to come to Tangier by Gertrude Stein. He studied and wrote an account of Berber music. Playwright Tennessee Williams visited Bowles for a time, as did Truman Capote. Then in the 1950s the Beat writers descended – William Burroughs, Alan Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. Jean Genet and Samuel Beckett spent time in Tangier too. English playwright Joe Orton spent the summer of 66-67 just outside Tangier with his lover Kenneth Halliwell. Becoming jealous of Orton’s success and the loot he earned, Halliwell killed Orton and himself in London shortly after a trip to Tangier.
 
Heads up
Moulay Ismail, the second sultan of the Alawite dynasty (which still rules today), certainly marked his ascent to power at the age of twenty-five in 1672. As a warning to unruly tribes, he sent the heads of 10,000 slain enemies to adorn the walls of the two great imperial capitals, Fes and Marrakesh. His first twenty years of rule were filled with bloody campaigns of “pacification”. More than 30,000 people are said to have died at his hands alone.

He needed plenty of labour to complete his building plans. For example, for the construction he ordered in Meknes, he used 25,000 Christian prisoners as slave labour, as well as 30,000 common criminals. His great stables housed 12,000 horses.
 
He was denied the hand of Louis XIV of France’s daughter, Princess of Conti. This probably didn’t distress him too much, since he had between 360 to 500 wives and concubines (sources vary) and 800 children by the time he died.

From Hamlet, the bard, not the cigar...

Writer has his 31st western accepted by Robert Hale, UK - All Must Die. The title is based on Hamlet.

http://ijparnham.blogspot.com.es/2014/04/all-must-die.html

Ian Parnham turns out good solid plots, often laced with humour as well as well-defined characters.

Recommended!

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Writing tip – It’s too long!

This is a companion piece to my blog ‘Writing tip – It’s too short! here


As we writers know, some publishers set an upper limit for fiction submissions. There are several valid reasons for this. The limit can vary from 50,000 to 100,000. Rarely do they want in excess of 100,000. Yes, there are exceptions, though I haven’t found any when searching on my wife’s behalf for her 150,000 romantic suspense novel.

So how do you clip off those extra words, expunge all that precious prose?

Here are ten suggestions:

1. Break the novel into two books. This will only work if the plot and flow of the story permits. The ideal point to break would be where the protagonist encounters a serious obstacle that seems insurmountable. Not the final black moment, but similar. So end on a cliff-hanger. That will inevitably require some rewriting. If you’ve captured the reader for the first ‘half’, then ending in this way is likely to entice the reader to seek out the follow-up.

Some books previously published were chopped up into smaller units because of their size – notably The First Chronicles of Thomas Covenant – that ended up as a trilogy (to be followed by others!) Edgar Rice Burroughs ended on a cliff-hanger at the close of The Warlord of Mars, the second in what amounted to a trilogy. Dickens did it all the time with the magazine versions of his novels: leave the reader wanting more. But not all books lend themselves to this kind of surgery.

Be ruthless. Yes, a good author should ruthlessly edit anyway. But many just tend to tinker rather than excise. Follow these suggestions and cut, cut and cut; put the manuscript away for a while, come back to it with fresh eyes and then cut, cut and cut again.  

2. Is every scene doing something to add to the plot or increase our understanding of the characters, or move the story forward? If the scene does none of those things, why is it there?

3. Is all that research that you’ve infodumped really necessary? Can it be condensed without losing the salient points in order to aid the story?

4. Repetition. Time and again I read where the same sentence or two is repeated, though using different words; the sense is the same, twice. Combine, or excise. Same goes for whole paragraphs.

5. Too many characters. This is a tough one. It depends on the type of story, naturally. A saga, or the first in a series, might contain a good number of characters. But do they all do enough to justify being there? Some need to be sounding boards, perhaps, for the main characters; others need to be there so they can meet a grisly demise that will signpost the threat to the protagonist. Fine.

Compare the screenplay of a novel; you’ll notice that some characters have been dropped, while in other cases two or more have been fused into one. (Yes, this is to save on actors’ pay, but it’s also to make the story less complicated). All your characters have to work or they don’t belong; in which case, send them to another work in progress.
 
6. Description. I believe description is necessary to put the reader into the scene. Admittedly, there are authors – and readers – who are happy with minimalist description; or none at all, relying on neat character-filled dialogue. That works, when done well. Though my argument is, it’s a novel that rattles in the reader’s head, not a radio play. Still, there can be too much description. Is all the description through a character’s eyes? Or is it imposed by the author? If you’re writing omniscient POV, then the description may tend to be too rich. If it’s character POV description, keep it tight and relevant, to create mood, foreshadowing or a sense of place and character.

7. Dialogue. Some characters can become irksome, running off at the mouth without let up. These folk need reining in. Does what they say have relevance to the story, to the forward movement of the plot? Occasionally, you can get away with ‘one sugar or two, Vicar?’ when the mood’s appropriate, but be ruthless where possible. Dialogue also falls into the repetition trap – beware, and if found, cut!
 
8. Scene shifts. Scriptwriting gets round much of the tedious bits by scene shifting. Do the same – unless it’s necessary, do you have to relate how your characters get to the next scene? Start the scene with them there.
 
9. Conflict. Without conflict, there’s no story. The conflict doesn’t have to be physical. It can be verbal, psychological, or even caused by the environment. Some scriptwriters arrive at the conflict slowly, letting us get to know the individuals first. That’s fine. But you’ll grab your reader faster and more firmly if you begin with the conflict and then get to know the characters through their actions. Cut the lead up to the conflict – go for the jugular straight away.

10. Tangent. If you don’t watch them, characters can go off at a tangent and take the plot with them. It’s interesting as you go, but is it necessary to the story’s main flow? Yes, you need sub-plots, but you can have too many of them. Be ruthless with the sub-plots and leave them only if they serve a purpose.
 
Finally, don’t discard. That might sound contrary, considering the purpose outlined. If you’re going to excise vast chunks of prose, that’s good. But cut and paste these chunks and save them elsewhere in another document. You never know, some or all of them may prove useful at a later date in another work in progress. If nothing else, it doesn’t seem as if you’ve entirely wasted your time on all that prose! [Whenever I decide to edit, I always start with a new copy, so I’ve always got the earlier version, in case I have an aberration and go too far!] Remember too that the time spent on those words wasn’t wasted; the simple action of writing improves your style every time, every day.
 
Of course, if you have a plot-plan and stick to it and monitor your word-count as you work, you’re less likely to exceed by too much that upper limit. I would estimate that 5,000 words over isn’t going to be frowned upon.
 
Truth is, you can always add more; the obverse is also true, you can always cut more.
 
Nowadays, of course, if you feel you cannot cut your prose to meet the upper limit of a publisher, you can always resort to self-publishing at reasonable cost – though bear in mind that usually every extra page of your masterwork will cost more in production and postage.

***

Advert time.
In my book Write a Western in 30 Days I discuss infodumping, plot-plans, conflict, description and character building.
 
On Amazon.com this book has eight 5-star reviews and two 4-star reviews; on Amazon.co.uk it has an additional three 5-star reviews.
 
This book is a very useful guide for anyone wanting to write genre fiction – that is, any genre, not only westerns. Those aren’t my words, but the opinion of reviewers on Amazon.
 
E-book from Amazon com bought from here

E-book from Amazon co uk bought from here
 
or paperback post-free world-wide from here


Monday, 14 April 2014

Book review - Hidden Depths

HIDDEN DEPTHS by Ann Cleeves  


Despite the fact that Ann Cleeves has published twenty-five novels since 1986, this is the first of her books I’ve read, and that’s probably thanks to the excellent TV series Vera, starring Brenda Blethyn.

Set in the northeast of England, this book evokes my home area very well: Foxhunters, Whitley Bay, Seaton Sluice, North Shields, Morpeth and Newcastle.

Julie Armstrong arrives home after a night out to discover her young son strangled, laid out in a bath of water and covered with wild flowers. And all that evening his sister was asleep in the next room. It’s a tantalising case for Inspector Vera Stanhope, the fat and ungainly and deceptively gauche copper. Not long after, another body is found, and this time it’s a young woman in a rock pool, again covered in flowers.

Vera’s ably helped by Joe Ashworth and the rest of her team, even though ‘she scared the pants off most of them; even those who shouted their mouths off in the police canteen were too timid to commit themselves to an opinion which Vera might consider foolish.’ As they investigate the local bird ringing club and friends of the dead woman, undercurrents of guilt, incompetence and adultery muddy the waters. The characters are rich and have depth, the plot is convoluted, but it all seems very real, down-to-earth without being gratuitous or offensively gritty.

As I read this book, I could hear Blethyn speak Vera’s words, a tribute to Cleeves and the actress and also the scriptwriters who have captured the essence of the book. I’ll certainly be reading more books by Ann Cleeves.

To date, there are only five Vera Stanhope novels - The Crow Trap (1999), Telling Tales (2005), Hidden Depths (2007), Silent Voices (2011) and The Glass Room (2012). Cleeves has been busy on another series, The Shetland Island Quartet, Raven Black (2006) which won the Gold Dagger Award, White Nights (2008), Red Bones (2009) and Blue Lightning (2010), and these books are being filmed for TV too, starring Douglas Henshall as Detective Jimmy Perez.

This review was published in a local magazine in November, 2012.

Copyright Nik Morton, 2014

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Make a date - 1st, 14th, 23rd and 30th April

War, Wolf and Who
 
Some time ago a series of my articles were published in a regular monthly column linking a set selection of dates in history. The series was popular. I'm busy coordinating the articles into book form. As today is 14 April, here are a number of linked events for that date plus three other April dates. To avoid repetition, I've simply indicated the relevant date in brackets.
The three dates for this article are:
1, 14, 23 and 30 April
 
April has a close connection with warfare, as an unusually large number of wars have started or ended in April and many military leaders have been born in April. Just a few wars that started/ended in April - American Revolution started (Paul Revere’s Ride: April 18-19, 1775) American Civil War (started April 1861, Ended April 1865) and the Second World War (Germany Surrendered in April, 1945).

The latter had a lot to do with the massed forces of the Allies but it was also highly relevant that Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun committed suicide the day after they were married in their Berlin bunker (30).

As a precursor to the Normandy landings, the Allies needed to penetrate the ‘soft underbelly of Europe’ and the success of the Allied landings in Sicily depended on a British Intelligence ploy to get the German High Command to shift its forces to Greece. Operation Mincemeat was devised in which the submarine HMS Seraph surfaced off the Mediterranean coast of Spain in 1943 and released a dead man into the sea (30). ‘Major Martin’ was carrying papers showing false invasion plans for Greece. This event was immortalised by the film The Man Who Never Was and was one of the greatest wartime hoaxes ever. It fooled the Nazis, which was the point. [An excellent book, by the way...]

 

Which was appropriate in the month of April Fool’s Day. Sadly, not all things that happened on this day (1) were foolish or funny.

In 1924 Hitler was sentenced to jail for five years (1) for his participation in the Beer Hall Putsch (essentially, treason), though he only spent nine months there – long enough for his world-shaking ideas to gestate in the form of his book, Mein Kampf (My Struggle). And on the same day seven years later, the newly elected Nazis organised a one-day boycott of all Jewish-owned businesses in Germany, ushering in a series of anti-Semitic laws which eventually culminated in the Holocaust.

A disaster on a vastly smaller scale than the Second World War was the sinking of the British steamer SS Atlantic (1) off Nova Scotia, killing 547 in 1873. Thirty-nine years later RMS Titanic struck an iceberg (14) and sank the next morning.

The same day that the iceberg was struck so was Abraham Lincoln (14) - by a bullet fired by John Wilkes Booth in 1865.

Two years later the president’s namesake William Lincoln patented (23) the Zoetrope, a machine which shows animated pictures by mounting a strip of drawings in a wheel and rotating it. And in 1894 the ubiquitous Thomas Edison demonstrated the kinetoscope (14), a device for peep-show viewing utilising photographs that flip in sequence, a precursor of movies.
 
And seventy-five years later to the day (14) at the Academy Awards there was a tie for best actress between Katherine Hepburn and Barbra Streisand. Another Oscar winner was Rod Steiger (for In the Heat of the Night in 1967) – he was born on the same day (14) in 1925, sharing the same birthday with Julie Christie (1941), who appeared with him in Dr Zhivago, and Sir John Gielgud, though twenty-one years younger than the illustrious thespian.
 
On the same day (14) in 1986, that actor who never won an Oscar but became president – Ronald Reagan - ordered bombing raids against Tripoli and Benghazi in Libya, killing sixty people, in retaliation for the bombing of a West Berlin nightclub where a US serviceman was killed.

Yet nature still manages to kill more people than man ever could: on the same day and year as Reagan’s raid (14), 2.2lb hailstones fell on a district in Bangladesh, killing 92. Apparently, these are the heaviest hailstones ever recorded. Bangladesh suffers regularly from natural disasters and April in 1991 was no exception (30) when a tropical cyclone killed about 125,000 people.
 
Meteorologists can actually save lives these days though this science was in its infancy in 1865 when Robert Fitzroy died (30). He was the captain of HMS Beagle and took Darwin on his trip to the Galapagos where he developed his theory of evolution. Fitzroy became an admiral and was the first to issue ‘weather forecasts’ – and the sea area Finisterre was renamed after him in 2002 for the shipping forecasts. [See my blog on the novel about Fitzroy here]
 
Definitely less devastating than the Asian tsunami, a modern instance when forecasting didn’t save lives, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake in 1946 near the Aleutian Islands caused a tidal wave that struck the Hawaiian islands (1) and killed 159. Many commentators lay the blame for natural disasters such as these on modern industrialisation. That famous ecologist, Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring and founder of the modern environmental movement, died (14) in 1964.

The ecological movement has become legitimate these days and has followers worldwide. The same can be said for Esperanto, the constructed language invented by Ludovich Lazarus Zamenhof (14) who died in 1917. He introduced it under the pseudonym Dr Esperanto, hence the name. His intention was to create an easy-to-learn neutral language to supplement other languages, not replace them. It currently has two million speakers.

Certainly Esperanto might have been useful for Columbus if it had been invented in 1492 when he was given his commission of exploration (30). Little did he realise what he’d set in motion. Some 311 years later, the United States purchased the Louisiana Territory from France for fifteen million dollars (30).
 
That’s not a lot of money for such a massive amount of land. The French have probably regretted it ever since. Talking of money, the first UK decimal coins were introduced this month (23) in 1968 in anticipation of the big event three years later.

Decimalisation certainly made calculations easier – especially on the computer which was in its infancy in those days. In fact, the Apple Computer company was formed in 1976 by Jobs and Wozniak (1). Things moved apace after that, of course, yet it was twenty-five years (23) before Intel introduced the Pentium IV processor.

It’s doubtful if modern synthesised music would have been invented without computers. And one of the most famous composers in this field is Morton Subotnick, who was born (14) in 1933 [and it’s pure coincidence that my name is submerged in his!] A composer of the more traditional sort was Georg Friedrich Handel, who died (14) on Subotnick’s birthday in 1759. Two composers with the name Sergei were born in April: Rachmaninoff (1) in 1873 and Prokofiev (23) in 1891.

Prokofiev is famous for many compositions, notably though Peter and the Wolf which has echoes of old vampire stories. Buffy the Vampire Slayer actress Sarah Michelle Gellar was born (14) in 1977 and none of the vampire characters would have been possible without the discovery of blood circulation by William Harvey who was born (1) in 1578.

Another William is the first Dr Who, William Hartnell, who died (23) in 1975 though he’s now destined to be remembered for all Time.
 
Science fiction author Anne McCaffrey, creator of the series of books about the Dragons of Pern, was born (1) in 1926, the same day as the silent movie star of the Phantom of the Opera, Lon Chaney, in 1883. Another actor who featured in science fiction films – Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers – was Buster Crabbe, who won Olympic gold medals for swimming in 1928 and 1932. He died this month (23) in 1983.
 
It would be remiss not to mention that England’s patron saint, St. George, was murdered in 303 AD because of his strong faith (23) and that both William Shakespeare and Miguel Cervantes died on this day in 1616. One wonders what Darwin would have thought about prolific author Edgar Wallace who was born (1) in 1875, the same year as another prolific author Edgar Rice Burroughs. Among many other books, Wallace wrote To Have and To Hold (which starred William Hartnell), The Four Just Men and King Kong, which has been remade into a state-of-the-art feature film by antipodean Peter Jackson. Fellow New Zealander Dame Ngaio Marsh was born (23) in 1899 and wrote about Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn.

  
The two Edgars - Wallace and Rice Burroughs

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Saturday Story - 'The Museum of Iniquity'

This was my 100th published short story, released in the Costa TV Times, 2010.

A playful whodunit in 1,000 words:
 

THE MUSEUM OF INIQUITY

 
Nik Morton
 
Egyptian sarcophagus - Wikipedia commons
 

There are enough red herrings here for a fish supper, Inspector Macdonald thought ruefully. They had uncovered ancient grudges, lurking secrets, pure hatred and - classic flipside of the hatred coin - overwhelming love. None of it explained why, or how, that hauntingly beautiful corpse had turned up inside the Egyptian Sarcophagus.

            A golden arrow pierced her heart. Nearby was a quiver full of arrows. "Oh!" exclaimed the Hungarian professor, Gregore Kane, "it's the president's daughter!"

            Inspector Macdonald glared at Detective Sergeant Christina Rosenthal.

She enlightened him. "He means Sir Ignatius Colvin, the Geographic Society's president, sir."

            "So? What's Kane doing here gawping?"

            She shrugged. "I thought he might be able to identify the victim."

            "Well, he’s done that, I suppose," said Macdonald grudgingly.

            Kane said, "What shall we tell the president?"

            "You could try the truth!" exploded another stranger who ignored the yellow Do Not Pass plastic tape and stormed in to the crime scene.

            "And who are you?" Macdonald demanded, beginning to lose his patience.

            "I am Ricardo Abel," the man announced proudly, "the Curator of this museum of antiquity."

            Macdonald sighed. "Is there anybody else in the woodwork, Rosenthal?"

            "Me!" came the response from behind a case containing a painted Chinese statue.

            "Oh, no, not the fifth estate as well!" Macdonald recognised Audrey Blevins the reporter.

            She was blonde, tall and dressed in a trench coat. "Come on, Henry, you owe me one after that successful murder hunt."

            By now Inspector George Henry Macdonald was having difficulty getting his breath. Suddenly, Henry's hiccups started, an embarrassing side effect of his stomach ulcer, the constant broken routine, the general stress of his job and his ill nature. Rosenthal made no secret of the fact that she often wished his nature would get better, but it never did.

            "How about it?" persisted Audrey Blevins. "An Exclusive?"

            "This is police business!" Macdonald snarled. "You don't barter with me, young lady. Victims are not for sale!"

            "Have it your way, Henry - but you know what they say, one man's meat..."

            "Get out!"

**

"You seemed a bit harsh on Audrey, sir," Rosenthal said.

            "A matter of principle."

            They were eating in The Luncheon, a restaurant whose a la carte meals would not strain their expense accounts; if they’d been politicians, it would be a different story – and restaurant.

            "What have we got so far?" asked Macdonald.

            "Kane and Abel hate each other. A family thing, going back about a hundred years when their ancestors were on the same dig in Egypt. Arguments over who first discovered the tomb - but the facts got blurred during the coup."

            "So they were grave-robbers?"

            She nodded. "Quite normal for the time, sir. Reckoned only the British were capable of preserving ancient culture for posterity. Called it the Steal of the Century."

            "By God, they’re thieves, the lot of them!"

            "Honourable members of parliament too..."

            Macdonald shook his head and growled, "There's no honour among thieves."

            "Anyway," she went on, "the result was the display in the Pharaoh's Chamber exhibit – now containing the prodigal daughter's corpse."

            He screwed up his face. "Why prodigal?"

            Rosenthal shrugged. "She upped and left her father Sir Ignatius when the old coot took in a Page Three model, photo-shoot name of Dolores Devine. She didn't mind his one night stands, but she drew the line at living with a bimbo."

            "Interesting, Rosenthal, interesting. Now tell me, why's he called 'clean sweep Ignatius'?"

            She smiled. "When his wife left him last year he cleared everything out of their home - and sold her possessions."

            "Did she resent that?"

            "Don't know, sir. She left the country with a Colonel Ranatoro."

            "One officer who wasn't the perfect gentleman, eh?"

**

"Checkmate, Dolores!" Sir Ignatius chuckled. Dolores Devine - what was her real name? - was hopeless but infinitely more preferable to look at than most chess buffs. "That's €1,800 you owe me!" He eyed her lecherously. "Cheap at half the price, eh?"

            She fished inside her amply filled blouse, producing four €50 notes. "I've only got €2,000, Iggy."

            He remembered when his old love, his first wife, had used that endearment; it sounded better on the delectable lips of Dolores. "I'll change it for you, my dear. Mind you, I insist it's not a penny more, not a penny less." He opened the drawer and blanched. What was a revolver doing there? He'd disposed of his weapon after committing the perfect murder - killing his cheating wife and Colonel Ranatoro, her stuffed-shirt paramour.

**

A chapter of accidents produced the first miracle in their investigation then everything fell into place. For Macdonald it was a matter of honour: he'd never failed to catch a murderer.

The weighted-down bodies of Mrs Colvin and her Colonel were discovered during the long hot summer when the reservoir dried up; the gun too; and the mud had preserved fingerprints.

            Some time later, experts revealed that the Sarcophagus was not the real thing. Certain documents disclosed that Abel sold the original to a private collector years ago. But the investigation also discovered that Ignatius knew, yet kept quiet.

Rosenthal found a few incriminating letters in the museum’s desk: Ignatius's daughter was blackmailing her father over her mother's disappearance.

"I think Ignatius killed her in the museum," said Rosenthal. "He was hoping to pin the murder on Abel beyond reasonable doubt."

"Seems like something out of a Greek tragedy," said Macdonald. "Get Abel arrested for fraud, Rosenthal."

"Yes, sir. Then what?"

"We need to get to the Ignatius mansion – and quickly!"

"Yes, sir."

The journey was only fifteen miles as the crow flies, but it took them too long through busy traffic.

            When they got there, ex Page Three girl Dolores stood over Ignatius Colvin's body, the smoking revolver in her hand. "An eye for an eye," said the dead colonel's daughter.

 
THE END

(With apologies to Jeffrey Archer for using in the text 36 titles from
his novels, short stories and plays)

 Copyright Nik Morton, 2014
 
More tales, laced with pain, humour and truth, can be found in
Spanish Eye, which can be purchased post-free world-wide from here


 
and the Spanish Eye e-book bought from Amazon com here
or bought from Amazon co uk here
 Also, there's my Spanish themed novel set in Tenerife: Blood of the Dragon Trees
 
 
Blood of the Dragon Trees e-book can be bought from Amazon com here
 or bought from Amazon co uk here
 
 

 

Friday, 11 April 2014

FFB - Spiderweb

Robert Bloch' Spiderweb was published in 1954; this book was one of a double offer from Hard Case Crime (2008), hence the bar-code on this image and the strapline ‘Two complete novels!’ The other Bloch novel was Shooting Star. Hard Case Crime brings to a modern audience old out-of-print classic crime novels plus new writing, with covers harking back to the golden age of pulp paperbacks.


Bloch’s novel is an enjoyable crime noir about Hollywood’s dark side. Eddie Haines is a washed-up radio jockey who can’t get airtime in LA. Then he’s befriended by Professor Otto Hermann who promises to make Eddie rich. All Eddie has to do is pretend to be a gifted self-help guru to the stars. It seems that Hermann has access to many secrets of the film stars and by using Eddie in his new guise of Judson Roberts, they can fleece unsuspecting pigeons. When Eddie meets Ellen and falls in love with her, he can’t get out of his deal with Hermann – because he too was being cunningly blackmailed…

Bloch gives away some of the conman’s secrets, which should be enlightening and educational. His characters use the psychological studies of the day to good effect to work subtle and convincing scams.

There are some great one-liners in this book. As the Professor explains about one film star hooked on astrology: ‘But she won’t so much as sleep with an assistant producer without consulting the stars.’

Bloch’s horror writing style is in evidence as well: ‘Poinsettias pressed myriad bleeding mouths to a garden wall.’

And he always likes to play with words – as evinced by some of his book and short story titles. Here, he goes all alliterative: ‘I eyed elkskin and surveyed suede.’

Of course he’s a master of the hardboiled style too; this is a great description: ‘She gave a look that would have made her a fortune as a glass cutter…’

Stephen King writes of Bloch, ‘Perhaps the finest psychological horror writer.’ [He’s keeping his options open, I guess, using ‘perhaps’.]

King’s writing pal Peter Straub says, ‘Robert Bloch is one of the all-time masters.’

I wouldn’t disagree with either of these gentlemen. Bloch is worth reading.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Writing tip - It’s too short!

10 ways to add more words without simply padding.


Recently, a correspondent wrote to me expressing concern over the fact that she had finished her book: it was aimed at a particular publisher but it was too short. This is not unusual; a number of publishers stipulate a minimum word-count. The old adage that a story is as long as it takes cuts no ice where minimum and maximum word-counts are concerned.

However, no reader wants to wade through prose that’s there for no good reason, words that do not serve the story.

So how can you actually add words without resorting to padding? Well, you could try one or more of the following suggestions:

1)      Have you got a sub-plot? Most novels are sustained by the presence of one or more sub-plots. These can involve minor characters or the protagonist’s circle of loved ones. The sub-plot has to move forward too, however, and may even heighten the conflict for the protagonist. If you haven’t done so, think about injecting a sub-plot.

2)      Is the sub-plot adequate? So you’ve got a sub-plot (or more), but are they doing enough? Does the sub-plot have the same depth of emotion and intensity as the main plot? Is it raising the suspense or threat to the protagonist? Add more depth, maybe.

3)      Characters’ descriptions. Some writers – and readers – are happy to go with minimal or no character description. Yet description helps create character. The way they look, the clothes they wear tell us something about them. And description helps the reader get immersed in the story, ‘seeing’ the images better. This doesn’t mean you have to opt for a shopping list, showing what the protagonist and others are wearing, though that can work from a certain character viewpoint (say, an observant detective). Clothes, complexion and eyes – all add colour in the mind’s eye of the reader.

4)      Emotional responses. Our characters are all emotional creatures; they respond to what happens to them: or should. Too often I’ve read an early manuscript that throws many an obstacle at the protagonist and all he or she does is ‘sigh’. Emotional responses involve an internal and an external physical manifestation, whether that’s the empty feeling in a stomach or the sweat of palms.

5)      Scene descriptions. If any kind of interaction between characters is involved in a particular scene, then the reader should have a mental image of that place – be it a room, a railway carriage or a stagecoach. Have you done enough scene description? Can the reader ‘see’ where the characters are in relation to each other? This is particularly important in fight scenes.

6)      The senses. We all know we should use all our senses when characters experience their world. But do we? Have your characters done so? Besides adding depth, using the senses adds another layer of believability, and further involves the reader.

7)      Dramatic scenes. I’ve come across more than a few scenes that lend themselves to dramatic interpretation, but they’re over before they’ve begun. Of course you can’t describe every scene in a dramatic context. But where two characters conflict verbally or physically, then ensure that you’ve gleaned all you can from this – the protagonist’s emotional responses, any additional conflict that arises from counter-arguments or blows, and so on.
 
8)      Show, not tell. There are times when the story needs to move forward faster, usually past those boring bits, but don’t ignore the fact that by showing the reader how your protagonist feels in any given situation involves the reader more than simply telling what the character feels. Dig into your character’s emotional responses to the events they encounter.

9)      Enliven the flab. There may be some flab that’s necessary to describe what’s going on. Bring these sections to life with metaphor, improved choice of words, and perhaps by personalising the description from a character’s point of view.

10)  Examine the ending. In many instances, the endings can be rushed. You’ve got to the end and you want to be finished with the story. Don’t rush it – but don’t linger longer than necessary. But ensure that you’ve employed all the above ploys in the ending; in other words, be certain that you haven’t skimped.

All of the above suggestions will increase the word-count. But these extra words have to work too. The writing has to remain tight, where every word counts – towards a story of clarity, where character and scene live for the reader.

That’s the long and short of it.