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Friday 9 October 2009

A Fistful of Legends - progress report-01

The followup anthology to Where Legends Ride officially has a title: A FISTFUL OF LEGENDS.

James Reasoner has done everyone proud with an excellent Introduction to the 21 new tales of the Old West.

The editing, page-setup and proof-reading is all completed. So the book moves on to the next stages of the process.

Still some way to go before a cover and publicity will be available.

Watch this space.

Nik (Editor)

Saturday 3 October 2009

The book of the film: Angels and Demons

Though this was written before the million-bestseller The Da Vinci Code, and features the same hero, Robert Langdon, it was filmed after Da Vinci. Naturally, since Da Vinci was Dan Brown’s breakout novel. I’ve come to Angels and Demons after reading Da Vinci, so my observations are affected by that.

Angels and Demons is a better book, and more original in concept. In essence, Da Vinci seems to be utilising the same template of Angels. A bizarre death complete with arcane symbols requires the presence of Langdon. There are seemingly endless expositions on various aspects of the symbols and the history pertaining to them. Langdon teams up with a young woman who is ‘related’ to the deceased. The person who calls in Langdon becomes a strong suspect. A final twist reveals a seemingly ‘good’ individual to be the actual perpetrator behind the scheme and the deaths.

Most books – and films – tend to rely on setting one deadline for the protagonists to beat. Brown isn’t content with one deadline – he has six. Cleverly orchestrated, they get the reader turning the pages.

Langdon is called in when it’s discovered that physicist Leonardo Vetra has been murdered, the sign of the Illuminati burned into his chest. The Illuminati organisation was presumed extinct some 400 years ago. The murder takes place in CERN, of all places. The DG, Maximilian Kohler wants Langdon to get to the bottom of the mystery and hasn’t called in the police yet, as he’s worried about the bad publicity. Vetra’s adopted daughter Vittoria has worked on antimatter with the physicist and they now discover that a considerable quantity of that devastating material has been stolen. As she is the only person who can make the material safe, Vittoria teams up with Langdon as their trail takes them to Rome – where else?

The Vatican is beginning the process of electing a new pontiff. Meanwhile, to mind the shop, Carlo Ventresca, the late pope’s camerlengo runs the show. Soon, they learn that four cardinals, the favourites for selection, have been kidnapped and will be killed at hourly intervals at specific but unnamed spots in Rome. It’s up to Langdon and Vittoria to find the cardinals as the deadlines count down…

The tension rarely lets up – despite the dense paragraphs of exposition. Yes, the whole thing is contrived, but it works. And the film is better in many respects, eschewing some of the more fanciful escapades of Langdon, while amalgamating characters and dropping some characters’ involvement with red herrings.

Considering Brown has taught creative writing, his prose sometimes lapses. When Langdon is shown to a private jet, he is ‘motioned up the gangplank’ – shiver my timbers, perhaps steps or gangway, but not gangplank!

I lost count of the times Langdon’s eyes performed surreal acts; here are two examples: ‘Langdon let his eyes climb.’ And, ‘Langdon’s eyes crossed the courtyard…’ And his characters don’t look up, they look ‘skyward.’

He has the annoying knack of author intrusion – way beyond the information dumping. ‘He never suspected that later that night, in a country hundreds of miles away, the information would save his life.’ As we’re reading this chapter from his point of view, he can’t know he never suspects…! And, ‘The horrifying answer was only a moment away.’ These insertions are not foreshadowing but blatant attempts to provide cliff-hanging ends of chapters.

Written in 2000, Brown might have been prescient. He mentions Woodrow Wilson’s warning in 1921 of a ‘growing Illuminati control over the US banking system. Beside the fact that 1921 isn’t 400 years ago, it begs the question, were the Illuminati involved in the sub-prime collapse of 2008? He also had praise for the BBC, where ‘every story they ran was carefully researched and confirmed.’ Despite a certain bias, of course…

These are mere quibbles. If you haven’t read Angels, give it a try. It’s fast-paced, intriguing and never lets up. Great entertainment with dashes of eloquence and poignancy.

Thursday 1 October 2009

Writing Guide-02 - Beginnings

Whether a short story or a novel, the beginning is very important. It's probably the most edited and changed aspect of any written work. It has to do several things at once: pull the reader in, create character or atmosphere or scene, or ask a question...

Both beginners and readers often ask ‘How do you start?’ How isn’t so important as just sitting there and doing it; as they say, apply bum to seat and write. Anthony Burgess said: ‘I start at the beginning, go on to the end, then stop.’ While Mickey Spillane commented: ‘I write the ending first. Nobody reads a book to get to the middle.’

A writer has to read to understand story structure – whether in a novel or a short story. Many stories begin half-way through then you get the beginning as a flashback or through memories or character disclosure. Ideally, you should start at a dramatic high-point, though not the most dramatic high-point – you leave that for the end. The most important thing is to pull the reader into your story – because if you don’t, then you’re likely to lose the reader. The reader only has to close the book, after all. There are plenty of books out there, all vying for readers. The writer has to grab the reader so that once involved in the book’s world and characters, the reader won’t let go until the end.

There are countless stories and articles in magazines seeking the reader’s attention. People only have a limited time to devote to reading. They will cherry-pick what interests them. The same goes for books in shops. A browser will look at the cover, perhaps the blurb on the back and maybe the first page. If that first page doesn’t grab the browser’s interest, the book is replaced on the shelf. The words you’ve sweated over for days or weeks or even years, even if they get published, may only merit an initial sixty seconds of consideration from a book-buyer. Make those first words count, make them say, ‘You’re going to enjoy this book and love the characters and marvel at the plot.’ Easier said than done, true.

What kind of hook can you employ? That depends on your story. The story’s theme, place and characters can all pull the reader in. Raise a question in the reader’s mind – a question that demands an answer, which means having to read on to find out. That question can be literal, from the mouth of a character, or hinted at by the narrative, suggesting that everything is not what it seems.

Starting a story with characters speaking is a good idea, as the reader gains a great deal through speech – the character reveals himself by the way he talks, there’s interaction between people, and there’s even a hint of eavesdropping in the character’s world.

Two classic beginnings spring to mind, one from a novel, the other from a short story.

‘It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.’ – Nineteen Eighty-four, George Orwell.

To begin with it seems as though we’re getting a boring weather report then we’re brought up short by the significance of the clocks striking not twelve, but thirteen. What on earth is going on? we ask and read on to find out more.

‘As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.’ – The Metamorphosis, Franz Kafka.

Clearly, it must be a fantasy, but it demands the reader’s attention as we learn about Gregor’s nightmarish feelings of isolation and sacrifice.

Not surprisingly, both authors have contributed words to the English language: Orwellian, Big Brother, Kafkaesque, for example.

Of course you’re not always going to manage to seduce the reader in the first sentence. But you should be trying to use every one of those early words and paragraphs to intrigue the reader, to pique her interest.

Yes, you’re bound to find published examples where the beginnings are bland or even quite ordinary. Usually, these are written by established writers who can indulge themselves because they have a ready readership. Dickens began A Tale of Two Cities with a philosophical viewpoint about the times of the French Revolution and started Bleak House with an atmospheric description of fog. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that because a famous author does things his way, you can emulate him. You’re fresh, new and unpublished – and need every trick in the book to get noticed. That means writing a good beginning that quickly hooks the reader.

Don’t sit in front of a blank sheet of paper, though, just because you can’t think of a good beginning. Get the story – or first chapter – written. The beginning can always be changed and improved afterwards.

The following beginnings come from a selection of my published short stories.


The stench was overwhelming, a mixture of mildewed fast-food, feces, rotten fruit, used sanitary towels, crumpled tabloid sheets of the New York Daily News and God knows what. I gagged and fought back the bile that threatened to lead a revolt of my stomach as I crawled over trash in the shadows. If my husband could see me now, he’d have a fit.

(Published in Beat to a Pulp ezine. This tells you the narrator is a female, probably in New York, and she's married. It also assaults the senses)

Up to that time I thought we could cope with anything. Until the snow struck. It wasn't the predicted heavy snowfall but a freak intense blizzard: ice spicules pummelled the canvas-covered trucks, sent up a deafening rataplan from the vehicle bonnets; the temperature plummeted to minus ten degrees. I used my black habit's voluminous sleeve to wipe a circle of visibility in the misted glass and peered out the lead truck's windscreen. Seconds ago there had been a road up ahead, with the prospect of another two hours' drive in these hostile Bosnian Mountains to the Mirvic Orphanage. Now there was just a white wall.

(Prize winning story published in Rom-Aid News and subsequently in Costa TV Times. We experience the threat of intense cold and it's a nun narrating. We know it's Bosnia and she's on a mission of mercy.)

All the churches in the world were full. And the synagogues. And the mosques. As an atheist I wasn’t surprised that all this prayer wasn’t working. Unfortunately, nothing else was, either. Science had no explanation. For five years now there hadn’t been a single baby born. Not one. Plants and flowers no longer bloomed. They didn’t die, they just never blossomed into flower, their leaves a dull grey.

(Published in the December issue of the Coastal Press. It's the future and disaster has struck our planet. A question is posed, and hopefully the reader will stick around to find out if there's an answer...)

Not long now. My tenacious hold on this mortal coil is weakening but I have no regrets as I look down and for the first time in sixty years see myself, lying there, still trapped within that faithful, old husk. There is no bitterness in me; the poor body served me well enough, impaired as it is: it kept me going until I met her and fifteen years beyond.

(A prize winning short story based on a real life, attempting to step into another person's shoes. Published in a number of places, including this blog. Again, it poses questions and the reader should be wondering what happened to make the narrator so sanguine about his plight...)

She came out of the godforsaken planet's seasonal mists, struggling under her immense weight. She wasn't welcome.

(A Christmas story commissioned for the Gatehouse Magazine. Transposing Christmas Eve to an inhospitable planet. Why wasn't she welcome?)

Purple was etched beneath her wide eyes. The slightly built girl in the shadowy doorway wore an eggshell-blue dress and apparently nothing else. Some people answer and look as if they're truly at home, in body and spirit; somehow, she didn't seem to belong, not here in this dilapidated house, not in shadow.

(Published in Dark Horizons. A character who begs to be understood. Why is she there? Questions that require answers.)

A mountainous landscape populated by dragons strode out of the swathes of sauna steam and approached me. Hiroki Kuroda was tattooed over his entire torso and down to his wrists and calves; at a glance he gave the impression that he was wearing long johns, instead of which he was a walking exhibition of yakuza body art. As a member of the yakuza, a Japanese criminal organization similar to the Mafia, he endured hundreds of hours of pain simply to show that he could. Hiroki waved with his left hand; the little finger was missing at the first knuckle.

(A Leon Cazador story, published in the Coastal Press. Surreal image that creates a mysterious character and potential threat.)

He had large eyes, big ears and, surprisingly, his middle finger was very long on each hand. ‘He looks cute,’ I said, lowering the photograph of the little aye-aye. His hair was black and he had a long bushy tail. His eyes seemed to be expressing surprise at finding himself in a cage rather than the diminishing rain forests of Madagascar. Perhaps the daylight conditions affected him too, which wasn’t strange really, as his kind is nocturnal. ‘But,’ I added, shaking my head in mock-concern, ‘my fiancĂ©e wants something a bit more exotic. Know what I mean?’

(A Leon Cazador story published in the Coastal Press. Again, slightly surreal till the reader realizes the description is not a man. Starts to ask questions - why the mock concern? What's going on here? Read on, I hope it says...)

Next time, I'll look at some novel beginnings.