Wednesday, 3 June 2015

How to summarise an 85,000-word novel in 300 words

I'm fortunate, I suppose, to have never really been touched by the death of someone close. My dog dying, in my early teens, is the closest I've come so far. And I've had other things to mourn - a friendship, principally, rent asunder by the sudden imposition of 3,750 miles in-between us. But death? No, I've been lucky, so far.

I have been thinking about it a lot though, recently. A writing friend has just suffered the loss of a sibling. That's terrible enough. That they are comparatively young only magnifies the sense of what is lost.

I am not quite so young... but the message here is clear. It's obvious, isn't it - I could go at any time. So, as Tim Robbins says, as Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption, get busy living or get busy dying. Time to crack on, get the novel finished. Try and do something with it. Avoid, if at all possible, the thought of waking up one day and wishing I'd done more with my writing.

To that end, I entered the Bridport Novel Award at the weekend. It was a bit eleventh hour, and involved some drastic, high-speed synopsis editing. My previous draft synopsis was 653 words long; for Bridport, it has to be 300 or less...

As you might imagine, that was quite hard. In fact, I didn't think I was going to make it. I tried a complete reimagining of what the synopsis might be, but ended up just writing a back-cover blurb instead. And then it hit me. Part of the reason summarising in 300 words proved so hard was that I was trying to tell the whole story, in short form but sequentially, as it happens in the novel version, and it just wasn't possible. So instead, I started to group together events from the novel that are thematically similar, though thousands of words apart. Then, I had one short paragraph about my protagonist's loss of the only people he has left to depend on rather than one paragraph about his mother's dementia and another about the erosion of a friendship.

And it worked. The net result was a synopsis that doesn't tell the story exactly as the story happens, but still summarises all the main points of the story. I think that's all you can realistically hope to achieve in 300 words. Mine was 299, since you ask. And yes, I had to lose some detail - gone were all references to place (Cambridge) and time (the long, hot summer of 2009), but they were small word count savings. The big ones came from the structural Damascene moment described above. You probably know this stuff already but I thought I'd share it anyway, just in case.

Realistic Bridport outcome? I might get some feedback. Dream outcome? Well, the longlist would do me. I can dream, can't I?

Get busy living or get busy dying? As Red observes in the film's coda, that's goddamn right.

Monday, 30 March 2015

What we talk about about when we talk at greater length about love

Stumbled upon this when going through my great pile of writing resources (which is actually many small piles). I can't find it anywhere on-line that isn't behind a paywall, so have scanned it for your reading pleasure. Sorry about the quality of the scan, it's from six-year old faded newspaper, but I've cleaned it up as best I can.

Anyway, if you love Raymond Carver, have read What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, watched Birdman or are just interested in editing/being an editor, you might get something out of this. Click to see it in its full-sized magnificence.

David Sexton's review of 'Beginners: the original version of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love'

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Could it be, I like you? (AKA some current and imminent freebies for you)

If you get your ebooks from the Amazoniverse, you might like to know of my current and forthcoming freebies.

So, from today to and including 28th September, horror short Turn Around Where Possible is free.

Then, from 8th to and including 12th October, suspense short Cold will be free.

And finally, from 22nd to and including 26th October, narrative/memoir Tesc-No - Living without supermarkets will be free.

Something there for everyone, I'm sure you'll agree.

Please help yourselves, and spread the word. If you like what you read, reviews on Amazon, Goodreads or your blog are always welcome. If you don't like it, feel free to give the whole reviewing malarkey a miss.

Cheers all.

P.S. +2 kudos points to you if you can identify the reference in this post's title.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

I don't really "do" memes any more but...

I don't go on Facebook much, if I can help it. I don't really "do" memes1 on there either - it all feels a bit 2008 - but since this one is book related and I was nominated by a good friend (not just nominated, Dark Steps made it onto her list) then I thought I'd better do this. Here's the spiel. List ten books that have stayed with you, for whatever reason, then nominate others to do the same. Simple.

I've added an extra rule of my own: only one book by any given author. Anyway, in no specific order, here goes:

Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk. You think the film is intense? Try the book. Pitch perfect prose too.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy. Maybe not his greatest work but this is about books that stay with the time in my life I read this, I was pump-primed, ready to be flattened by this book.

High Fidelity by Nick Hornby. The book that speaks to me most about being a bloke (and about being a record collector).

Vox by Nicholson Baker. Famously dismissed as a "toenail paring" by Stephen King because of its brevity, Vox is proof that word count is not the be all and end all. Intimate, shocking (still), thought-provoking and very special to me. I almost swapped this choice for The Fermata, by the same author, but since I read Vox first, it (just) gets the nod here.

I Am Legend by Richard Matheson. An exercise in controlled horror. You've probably only seen the Will Smith vehicle, but wipe that film from your mind and savour the far-superior source material instead.

Skeleton Crew by Stephen King. I nearly chose The Stand. I nearly chose the recent (and brilliant return to form) 11.22.63. I should probably have chosen The Shining, as it's arguably his best work. But I chose this collection of short fiction instead, as it was the first King I ever read. It's probably not even King's best collection (that's Night Shift, I expect) but it does include The Mist and Mrs Todd's Shortcut. Most importantly though, it began a love affair for me that persists to this day.

Oryx And Crake by Margaret Atwood. If there's been a better (and more unnerving) slice of speculative fiction written in the last twenty years, I haven't seen it. Atwood is beyond compare, in my book.

The Death of Grass by John Christopher. Nowadays book shops, real and online, are awash with dystopia - everything is dystopian this and dystopian that. But this book, long out of print but now back in circulation, just pips The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham for proper, old-school dystopia.

The Outcast by Sadie Jones. I thought long and hard about whether to include this. It is a good book, of that there is no doubt. Have I read other, greater books? Yes. But this makes the because it stays with me, more than most others, because of the time in my life and the circumstances in which I read it.

Watership Down by Richard Adams. The book I have read more than any other (14 times, I think). In a book about rabbits, all human life is here.

And now a cheat, to mention a couple more books. Just bubbling under, not making the cut, Spaceship Medic by Harry Harrison, a book from my childhood, and Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke, from a time in my teens when I read an awful lot of science fiction. Oh, and American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis which, I'd wager, stays long in the mind of anyone who reads it.

And that's it - ask me again next week and you'd probably get a different list. I know this isn't Facebook but the whole thing is about books, and this is where I write most about books, writing and reading, so it seemed relevant. If, by slim chance, we're friends in Zuckerberg's empire, I hope you don't mind the repetition.

1. Is there a verb yet that means "to 'do' a meme"? Answers on a postcard to the usual address (i.e. post a comment). Cheers.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

In case you missed it... Margaret Atwood offers succinct answers to succinct questions... and other book news

Bookshop chain Waterstone's have just run a Q&A with Margaret Atwood via Twitter using the #AskAtwood hashtag. The results are definitely worth reading. Here they are...

In other book news, Dave Gorman has a new book out, Too Much Information, loosely based on his incomparable Powerpoint presentation live show. And Mark Kilner has just published his second collection of short stories, Numbskulls. If you're half as discerning as I think you are, you'll enjoy both, albeit for different reasons.

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

An exercise... because exercise is good for you

Courtesy of the brilliantly talented author Sarah Dobbs and her Creative Writing the Artist's Way programme...

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Perhaps you're not seeing everything, ever

I mostly try to write unsettling stories, psychological horror, the horror of the everyday and the things that people do. That's because, if I can quote Mark Kilner (who you will like reading, by the way), the whole "horror as in werewolves and goblins or horror as in psychopaths running around with knives" doesn't really do it for me.

What makes a story scary, horrific or just plain unnerving for you? I recently read an excellent view on this in Eva Wiseman's Observer column; I think you should read it too (here's a link) but even if you don't, here are a few paragraphs from it that make some fine points.

Walking home after seeing the Blair Witch Project at the local lido multiplex, a thing ran across the pavement in front of me and maybe it was a massive cat or maybe it was a deathly monster. I suppose I'll never know. But this is the joy of horror. That the stories never tie up neatly, and that perhaps you're not seeing everything, ever.


At times, it seems that every story suggests blockbuster horror. Like, for instance, these recent regional news reports about a fox that returns to the same woman's garden in suburban Leeds every night, to make an offering of another single shoe. I mean. Or the woman accused of murdering her elderly parents, alleged to have buried them on top of each other in the garden in Nottingham one bank holiday 15 years ago, but who it's claimed continued to send Christmas cards to the extended family, saying she and her husband were travelling in Ireland "because of the good air". The good air.

All these stories are fascinating because they're creepy, and they're creepy because they're thrilling, and they're thrilling because we don't understand them, and because hopefully we never will. That rich combination of tragedy and fear, and sadness, too, that fresh scent of mourning that we can examine from afar. The difference between jumping off a building and riding a rollercoaster. We feel the feeling, the shudder, and then we get to go home and put the kettle on and maybe have a bath.

The idea that perhaps you're not seeing everything, ever, is what keeps me awake at night. How about you?