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Monday 31 October 2016

Writing - Hours to write a book...

How long does it take to write a novel?  How long is a piece of string?

Some authors tell us they spent years writing their novel. This is not strictly accurate. They haven't spent every day of those years writing it. The writing has been spread over those years. Perhaps some days, weeks or even months went by when no writing occurred at all.

The only way to accurately depict how many hours or days have been spent on a novel is to record the actual writing time on a spread-sheet. 

I work in sessions - they could be 15 minutes (minimum, or I don't record), 30 minutes or hours or part-hours.  I keep a tally so that every 8 hours equals one day.

In a recent article about personal finance, Jeffrey Archer revealed something of interest. "It typically takes me about 1,000 hours to write a book... Writing works out at about £10,000 an hour [from his earnings]."

For my current work-in-progress I've just clocked 100 hours for my 70,000 words. That averages out at 700 words an hour.  Of course some hours I'll be writing more than that, and others considerably less. One thing is for sure, when the book is finished and published, it is not going to earn me anywhere near £10,000 an hour!

Jeffrey Archer is 76. His latest book, This Was A Man is the conclusion of his Clifton Chronicles and is published on 3 November.  Archer lives in Grantchester with his wife Mary. (I wonder if he will ever appear in one of James Runcie's Sidney Chambers Grantchester crime novels? Probably not, different era!)

Saturday 29 October 2016

Book review - The General

C.S. Forester’s fiction covered a wide range, though there was a heavy leaning towards historical stories. The General (1936) is virtually a biography of a fictional Army officer. It begins with Lieutenant-General Sir Herbert Curzon, KCMG, CB, DSO being wheeled in his bath-chair along Bournemouth’s promenade.  Local opinion in Bournemouth ‘is inclined to give Sir Herbert more credit than he has really earned, although perhaps not more than he deserves.’  That ambivalent, cryptic observation then leads into a flashback that covers almost the entire book.

The ‘virtual biography’ stems from the style and point of view of the writing: ‘The day on which Curzon first stepped over the threshold of history, the day which was to start him towards the command of a hundred thousand men, towards knighthood – and towards the bath-chair on Bournemouth promenade – found him as a worried subaltern in an early South African battle.’

At the time, Curzon was in the cavalry fighting the Boers. By chance rather than design, he distinguished himself in the battle of Volkslaagte and earned a DSO. Curzon is depicted as a man of honour without much imagination. He desired to conform to type, particularly as his family history could not compare with that of the majority of officers. ‘… it is assumed that it is inherent in the English character to wish not to appear different from one’s fellows, but that is a bold assumption to make regarding a nation which has produced more original personalities than any other in modern times.’ (p20)

The years passed and then the First World War was upon them. Forester captures a great deal of the feel of the time: ‘There never had been a mobilization like this in all British history…’ (p28) They conveyed some three thousand horses to France for the expeditionary force.

Curzon believed in the maxim, ‘Feed the horses before the men, and the men before the officers, and the officers before yourself.’ (p29) He didn’t like to command his division by telephone, as other commanders did: ‘He was still imbued with the regimental ideal of sharing on active service the dangers and discomforts of his men.’ (p148)

Curzon had not mastered French, ‘which the civilians talked with such disconcerting readiness. He had early formed a theory that French could only be spoken by people with a malformed larynx…’ (p29)  This is only one instance where Forester employs his humour and irony. Another is: ‘Her Grace is not at home, sir,’ said the butler at the door. By a miracle of elocution he managed to drop just enough of each aitch to prove himself a butler without dropping the rest.’ (p68)

At length, Curzon was promoted to Major-General and given the Ninety-first Division, to relieve a rather aged officer – ‘a doddering old fool’ - and take his residence. The outgoing officer and his wife were not pleased. ‘Until this morning they had felt secure in the pomp and power of their official position. It was a shock for old people to be flung out like this without warning… With the tenacity of very old people for the good things of life they wanted to spin out their stay here, even for only a few days.’ (p88)

Eventually, Curzon marries well, the daughter of a duke. ‘The Bishop (he was a Winter-Willoughby too; by common report the only one with any brains, and he had too many) went through the service…’ (p102) Afterwards, at the reception, Forester presages the doom looming: ‘The sparse khaki amidst the morning coats and the elaborate dressed would have been significant to an attentive observer. Those uniforms were like the secret seeds of decay in the midst of an apparently healthy body. They were significant of the end of a great era.’ (p103)

While Curzon might have been a bit of a snob, he was not as out of touch as his in-laws: ‘… it gave the Duchess an uneasy sense of outraged convention that aeroplane bombs should slay those in high places as readily as those in low. She described the horrors of air raids to Curzon (on leave) as though he had never seen a bombardment.’ (p175) The Duke’s sense of proportion was less warped, if marginally so.

There are a few moving passages where Curzon’s stiff upper lip almost falters with regard to his wife. ‘Curzon actually had to swallow hard as he kissed her good-bye; he was moved inexpressibly by the renewal of the discovery that there was actually a woman on earth who could weep for him.’ (219) [We’ll ignore the repetition of ‘actually’…]

As the war gets under way, Curzon’s 91st Division is scheduled for Gallipoli, but he wants to face the Hun and manages to get the orders changed. To the Western Front – Flanders’ fields…

Written just before the next global conflict, The General shows that the adage ‘lions led by donkeys’ might have been good left-wing or liberal propaganda, but it was unfair. The methodology of warfare had been outstripped by the weapons. Common sense should have indicated that throwing thousands of infantry at barbed wire and machine-guns was no way to wage war. ‘… a convention had grown up under which the prowess of a division was measured by the number of its men who were killed.’ They were playing a numbers game, not dealing with human beings who had dreams, hopes and families.

Although Forester didn’t go into combat, he manages nevertheless to convey some of the horror of trench warfare.  The General is an excellent examination of a brave First World War officer thrust into a situation largely beyond his understanding where his beliefs and ideals are shattered by modern warfare.

Wednesday 26 October 2016

Sleuths, Spies and Sorcerers

This alliterative title covers three episodes concerning Andrew Marr’s Paperback Heroes on BBC4. Last week we had Sleuths, this week we had Sorcerers (which is repeated tonight on the same channel), and next week it will be Spies.

Within the limited time of an hour, Andrew Marr attempts to deconstruct these popular genres; you know those books that never seem to win prizes, that the literary snobs decry and dismiss, those books that sell in their millions.

Sleuths was patchy, giving over many minutes to the genius of Agatha Christie, leaving less time for other practitioners. We had the John Dickson Carr’s locked room mysteries, Ian Rankins’ Rebus, Chandler’s Marlowe, Dashiell Hammett’s The Continental Op and Sam Spade to name a few. Interviewees comprised Val McDermid, Ian Rankin, and Anthony Horowitz, among others.

The psychology of the sleuths was examined, and the times they lived in obviously affected them. A long time ago, a reviewer of John D. McDonald said the author didn’t need to write The Great American Novel (a holy grail for American authors at one time), since he was doing that in his installments of Travis McGee and his other crime novels. That’s more or less the conclusion Marr makes concerning the crime writers, whether of the past or the present: they reflect the society from which they sprang, a rich trove to delve into for future archaeologists and historians.

Logically, Spies should have been next but for some reason Sorcerers followed. Here we entered the realms of fantasy.  While fantasy has been around throughout the ages, in many cultures, Marr suggests that its modern popularity probably stemmed from the publication of The Lord of the Rings books. One of the prime attractions of fantasy is the world-building that is required; that means multifarious aspects of life in the fictional world, all logically fitting.
Besides Tolkien, Marr touched upon George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire sequence of  novels, now filmed as Game of Thrones. Apparently, Martin was inspired to write the series when visiting Hadrian’s Wall and studying medieval English history and also the Wars of the Roses. The books contain ambivalent characters, people who are not wholly good or completely bad, as in life, perhaps, with conflict caused by ideology, greed, lust and a thirst for power. Other fantasists mentioned include Ursula K. Le Guin (Earthsea series), C.S. Lewis (Chronicles of Narnia), J.K. Rowling (the Harry Potter phenomenon) Alan Garner (The Weirdstone of Brisingamen), Philip Pullman (His Dark Materials trilogy), Neil Gaiman (American Gods), and of course Terry Pratchett (Discworld novels et al).

This episode seemed more coherent and covered a wide range within the genre.

As with Sleuths, however, there are bound to be many favourite authors omitted from this genre. It is now impossible to read all books within any single genre (nor would that be a good literary diet anyway), because there is so much choice.

Next, Spies. I can guess that certain names will crop up, among them Deighton, Le Carré, and Fleming, but who else? I’ll be tuning in to find out.

Besides being about books and authors, this series touches upon several genres I enjoy to read and write: Spanish Eye (Sleuths), Wings of the Overlord (Sorcerers), and ThePrague Papers (Spies).

Monday 24 October 2016

Saving Africa’s Elephants

Tonight on BBC TV there’s part one of two of 'Saving Africa's Elephants' that features Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall campaigning to save the African elephant. Although these magnificent beasts have been ‘protected’ for over two decades, they’re still being slaughtered for their ivory. It’s a sick illegal trade that should have been stopped long ago. But then again, we’ve been saying that about the human slave trade – which hasn’t been stopped either…

Endangered species and their support have been close to my heart for many years.  That might account for the fact that I’ve featured various aspects of their plight and the illegal trade in my writing. No preaching, just facts used in the story.

‘Endangered Species’. A short story featuring half-Spanish half-English private eye Leon Cazador on the track of dealers in exotic pets. See SpanishEye, a collection of 22 Cazador cases.

Blood of the DragonTrees. Laura Reid likes her new job on Tenerife, teaching the Spanish twins Maria and Ricardo Chávez. She certainly doesn’t want to get involved with Andrew Kirby and his pal, Jalbala Emcheta, who work for CITES*, tracking down illegal traders in endangered species. Yet she’s undeniably drawn to Andrew, which is complicated, as she’s also attracted to Felipe, the brother of her widower host, Don Alonso. Felipe’s girlfriend Lola is jealous and Laura is forced to take sides – risking her own life – as she and Andrew uncover the criminal network that not only deals in the products from endangered species, but also thrives on people trafficking. Very soon betrayal and mortal danger lurk in the shadows, along with dark deeds …

Cataclysm. Third in the ‘Avenging Cat’ series. We again meet Laura and Andrew, this time in Shanghai on the trail of illegal trade in endangered species. This is primarily an adventure featuring Catherine Vibrissae and her vendetta against the crooked CEO Loup Malefice, but her path crosses with Laura's during her investigations.

* CITES - Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora is an international agreement between governments. Its aim is to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival.

Saturday 22 October 2016

Writing - Competition - The H.E. Bates Short Story Competition

This competition was inspired by the Northampton-born master of short stories, H.E.Bates, and was first launched in 2005, his centennial year. It’s run by the Northampton Writers Group; for full website details, see here

Deadline - Monday 5th December 2016

Subject - of your choice.

Open to all writers.

Length - no longer than 2000 words.

*   1st Prize £500
*   2nd Prize £100
*   3rd Prize £50

Entry fee - £6 for the first story submitted. (It is reduced to £10 for any entry of 2 stories. Further stories have a fee of £5 each.) You can submit as many stories as you wish, providing they have not been previously published or have been prize-winning entries in another competition.

Judging panel - members of the Northampton Writers Group. The Head Judge is Maggie Allen, author and professional ghost-writer.

Postal entry: Send your story or stories (typed please) with a first sheet giving your name, address, telephone number, e-mail address, and title of story or stories to H.E.Bates Competition, 19 Kingswell Road, Kingsthorpe, Northampton NN2 6QB. Please mark the envelope "f.a.o. Nick Hamlyn". Include a postal order or cheque (made out to N.Hamlyn).

E-mail entry: e-mail your story in Word format, complete with a first page as described above, to and pay by PayPal; you will be invoiced on receipt of your entry.

Good luck!

Friday 21 October 2016

Writing - be patient, the story will come

'The End' might not be, after all.  Stories have a habit of refusing to go away, insisting that there's still life smouldering between the lines, no matter how many times it's been discarded or rejected.

For years, I've advocated, 'never throw away your failed tales'. I've resurrected several and they've been sold subsequently. Certain stories - or their theme or idea - are just not ready; whether that's the treatment, the characters, or the lack of writing experience; for some reason the story needs time to gestate.

A writer friend, Ray Foster, can certainly endorse this viewpoint. A story that evolved in 2000, changed and morphed in the intervening time until finally being accepted for an anthology this year, the third in an ongoing annual series, Spectacular Tales. Let him tell you about it here.

Of the many instances where I too have found that time was necessary to let the story grow, perhaps the first adventure of Tana Standish is apt. It began as a short story in the early 1970s, transformed into a 50,000-word novel in 1975, and was rejected by Robert Hale due to its paranormal elements (a psychic spy), though their rejection did say 'it's better than many books that are published'. Years later, I returned to the manuscript, piled up a great deal more research, and it was finally published in 2007 as The Prague Manuscript (84,000 words). Then the publisher ceased publishing and the manuscript languished until I revised it yet again and it was published by Crooked Cat in 2014 as The Prague Papers (75,000 words). Since then, another novel in the series has resulted, The Tehran Text (85,000 words) and a work-in-progress is 60,000-words and counting, The Khyber Chronicle.

So, take heed of Ray's closing comments, and never give up.

Thursday 20 October 2016

Book review - Promised Land

Third in the Hooded Swan saga by Brian Stableford, Promised Land (1974) briefly recapitulates some of the events in book two (Rhapsody in Black) as it is dead time for Grainger on New Alexandria. While sightseeing in the countryside, he spots a ‘girl’ being chased by two men. He’s the first to admit he’s no hero, but he intervenes, coming to her aid. The ‘girl’ wasn’t human ‘but she was very humanoid… Her skin was golden-brown and looked moist. Her eyes were big and orange. Her hands seemed to be very contortive – her fingers were tentacular and retractable. Beneath her clothing there looked to be some kind of ridge pattern on her back. She had no hair.’ (p11)

It seems this ‘child’ is one of the indigenous species, the Anacaona of the planet Chao Phrya. (Of interest, perhaps, Anacaona was a princess of Hispaniola, 1474-1504). Shortly after Grainger’s encounter with her, the girl was kidnapped and en route to that planet. Charlot, Grainger’s boss, tells him to fire up the Swan and follow. It’s vital, though he doesn’t give any really valid reason.

The people of Chao Phrya are ‘neurotic isolationists’, according to Charlot. They landed on the spaceship Zodiac and declared the planet the Promised Land.

They are permitted to land and Grainger and his captain Eve are escorted by Zodiac crew members into the forest, led by ‘tame’ Anacaona. This is where the story gets interesting, where Stableford indulges himself and the reader with the flora and fauna of an alien world. Illness and disease could be a problem, too, for Grainger was loathe to administer  human antiseptics and bug-killing drugs to the Anacaona, since there was no telling how their metabolism would react. The Zodiac people didn’t seem interested in studying the indigenous humanoids.

The dense jungle is almost like a character in the story, pervasive, intrusive and glutinous. Perhaps the most threatening creatures are the crypto-arachnids – ‘about the size of black bears, except that their legs were longer and made them look more spread out. They were furred like black bears too’, moving ‘with sinuous serial scuttling movements…’ One of their Anacaona guides is a spider-hunter; he plays a flute that immobilises them, ready for the kill. When the guide is overcome with illness, and a half-dozen or so crypto-arachnids close in on Grainger, we’re subject to a few tense pages!

Since the first adventure (Halcyon Drift), Grainger is host to a symbiote, which he calls ‘the wind’; though here he calls it a ‘parasite’.  (p18) Their relationship is closer, the bonding now being two-sided, each seeing the benefit of helping the other. This aspect is one of the attractive features of the series; yet again, I felt that ‘the wave’ was neglected for too long in the story.

There are some anachronistic oddities, for example: ‘He was interrupted by the bleeping of his desk phone.’ Not a vid-phone, just simple voice. Others include references to a ‘jeep’ a ‘train’, a ‘hovercraft’ and ‘helicopters’ and a reference to the ‘Mafia’. I suspect more futuristic alternatives could have been used.

The first-person narrative by Grainger is unchanged, with wit and irony and he’s still the anti-hero.  A fast, interesting read with a mystery at its core.

Wednesday 19 October 2016

#Writing - Spine-chilling fiction writing competition

Spine-chilling fiction writing competition

Length - maximum 1,000 words (including title)

1st Prize: £500

2nd Prize: £300
3rd Prize: £200
4th Prize: £100
Closing date: 31 October 2016
 (plenty of time!)

Entry fee: £3.50 
[Payment must be made via PayPal.]

Do you love writing spine-tingling fiction and have a fascination for horror stories? If so, enter this new writing competition from the Creative Competitor. You can use the above photo for inspiration but they welcome imaginative interpretations of the theme. They recommend that 'to be in with a chance of winning, make sure you have a strong opening and you hold our attention throughout.'

Your story must be unique and previously unpublished.

You must be aged 18 or over
Open to writers worldwide

You may include reference to the above photo
You may enter multiple submissions providing the correct fees are paid
You must enter on or before the closing date

Submissions must be pasted into the body of the email (unless otherwise specified) and sent to:
Please mark the email subject line with the name of the competition i.e. Spine-chilling Fiction Writing Competition 

Good luck!

Tuesday 18 October 2016

Writing - Open competition - short story

Southport Writers' Circle Open Short Story Competition

Deadline - 31 October

Length - up to 2,000 words

Any theme or genre

Prizes - £150, £75, £25

Entry fee - £3 (or £10 for four!)

Online or postal entry. Plenty of time!

See full rules here

The judge is Robert Scott-Norton, a successful indie author "famed for his ongoing intricate sci-fi series ‘The Tombs Legacy’". He's looking forward to reading entries other than sci-fi, of course... Check his books on Amazon - he likes to get straight into the action, it seems.

Good luck!

Monday 17 October 2016

Reviews - authors would like them, but...

Of late, I've observed a noticeable drop off in reviews of my books.

Now, there could be any number of good reasons for that:

1) My reach is limited so I'm not getting new readers
2) My books don't appeal (hopefully earlier reviews will refute this?)
3) Amazon has scared off potential reviewers.
4) Most readers don't review
5) Readers aren't buying from Amazon any more
6) Amazon's new rules prohibit reviews if the reviewer hasn't bought $50-worth of product in their Amazon account, ever

It's quite possible that the third reason has some credibility. I'd recommend that if you're interested in Amazon reviews, you read Anne R. Allen's latest blog about the subject. Apart from analyzing the new Amazon review rules, there's a healthy injection of humour in there too.

And bear in mind, that reviews don't affect your book's ranking - sales do that.

Note: So far, the minimum spend relates to Amazon.Com - it would, since it quotes dollars, I guess. But watch this space...