Saturday, 30 July 2022

The Joy of Food

A week ago, I got food poisoning on a trip to Derry and Donegal. And since then the runs have continued. So my constant companions have been sachets of Dioralyte and rolls of Andrex. By the fourth day, I was feeling rather weak and exhausted, so I rang my GP. He told me that most food-poisoning was caused by viruses, but there could be other culprits. So he needed a sample to send to the microbiology lab. T went to the surgery and collected a large brown envelope he had left for me. Inside was a small container, a wooden spatula and a pair of surgical gloves.

I put a plastic picnic plate in the neck of the toilet. It wasn’t long before I had to go. The watery diarrhoea collected in the plate. I scooped some of it up with the spatula, screwed the cap onto the container and sealed it in the plastic envelope. I also made a mental note to never look for a job in a microbiology lab.

The doctor also included a prescription for an anti-spasmodic drug. You take one tablet a half an hour before eating. He also advised me to only eat dry toast, mashed banana and plain boiled rice. This is not much of a menu. But at least it was something to munch on. I remembered one of my times in hospital for cancer treatment when I had to fast for twelve days. After four days I lost all interest in food, and by the end I had to learn to eat again.

I have kept to my plain menu and the anti-spasmodic tablets. Indeed, for last night’s tea, I had a very exotic dish: broth with slivers of boiled chicken in it. And this has managed to stay in. So I am hoping that I’m now turning a corner. I’ve heard nothing from the microbiology lab, so I don’t know yet what bug has laid me low. But I am looking forward to maybe trying a bit of boiled carrot with my chicken broth tonight. I don’t think I’ll be taking food for granted again.

Tuesday, 19 July 2022

The Agent Submission

I’ve now reached the final task on my Advanced Crime Writing course. The agent submission comprises my writing bio, the synopsis and the first three thousand words of my book. The opening is the most important part of any book, because it either gains a reader’s interest or it does not. And the reader I am trying to interest at the moment is one of the literary agents at Curtis Brown. They will be reading the openings of the novels of the thirteen writers who have completed the course. If one of the agents is interested, they would then ask to see the full manuscript. Over the past week, the course organizers have been lowering our expectations. An expression of interest in our work is possible, but unlikely. And all of the agents are ‘very busy’. So we would not hear anything for several months, if at all. But hope springs eternal.

During the course, I’ve been preparing my submission with great care. An earlier draft of the opening of my book got helpful feedback from the tutor and other participants. Since then, I’ve formed a feedback group with several of the writers on the course. And over the past week we have been reviewing one another’s submissions. The deadline for the agent submission is tomorrow. So today I have been making final edits to the opening of my book. The structure and content is already there. It’s more a matter of a word change here or there, and a comma instead of a full stop. But small details matter.

When I finally send it, I will cross my fingers and breathe a sigh of relief. But that is not the end. For then I have to go through the rest of the manuscript and make it as good as I can. Editing is painstaking and rather laborious work. But it has to be done, and done carefully and thoughtfully. In a couple of months, I just might be getting a request from an agent to read the manuscript. Please wish me luck.  


Tuesday, 28 June 2022

Masterclass with Lisa Jewell

The most recent event on my Advanced Crime Writing course was a brilliant masterclass with Lisa Jewell. Knowing that she had published 20 thrillers in the same number of years and had sold over 10 million copies worldwide, I was expecting a rather formidable person. But she was very engaging, down to earth and disarmingly open about her craft. The masterclass proceeded in a Question Time format. All of the course participants had submitted their questions in advance. I was delighted to be called. What is the most important skill for a writer of crime fiction? I asked. And why?

Lisa’s reply was quite long and covered a lot of important issues for any writer of fiction, me especially. ‘Trust and believe in your natural instincts as a writer,’ she said. She told me that she began her books with one or two characters and a setting. And she did not construct a plan of the plot. She inserted dilemmas and challenges into the characters lives and saw where that took her. This organic process worked really well most of the time. Sometimes she found that she needed to put events in a different order; cutting up the story with scissors and stitching it back together again

For her first few books she thought that she was doing it wrong as a writer of fiction. She told herself that she really ought to have a plan for the book. Then she gave up worrying about it and just carried on writing in her own way. She said that readers remembered characters rather than plots. She wrote with her instincts and constructed the plot as she went along. This, she said, required confidence, positivity and faith.

I thanked her very much. I said that I had written my novel in this way too. And I had also thought that I was doing it wrong, because I didn’t have a plan. I came away from the masterclass with a great sense of validation and empowerment. And I returned to my manuscript with fresh energy and insight.


Sunday, 12 June 2022

My Free Lunch

There’s supposed to be no such thing as a free lunch, but I think I’ve found a way. Boosted by my fourth vaccination, I headed out on a little trip. The destination was the Strandfield Café in Co Louth. I was meeting a friend of mine, who lives in the ROI. He chose the venue because of its covered outdoor seating. But Strandfield is more than that. It comprises a bakery, a café with a great menu and a specialist grocery. Despite not being far from the motorway, there are plants and greenery all around. I did feel anxious being among people again. Almost all of them weren’t wearing masks.

We sat outdoors and chatted over tea and cake. I hadn’t seen my friend since before the pandemic. He is a film-maker. And he’d been busy, making programmes for both RTE and BBC NI. I told him about my novel and the Advanced Crime Writing course that I was doing. It wasn’t long before we were talking about story and narrative.

Unsurprisingly, the worlds of film and fiction are closely intertwined. I found myself telling him about my plot problems. And he told me about storyboarding the new documentary that he is working on. And before long, I realized that he was offering me a very helpful lens through which to see my plot problems.

We chatted for a couple of hours, and then went to our homes. The next day, I found myself reworking the first act of my novel. I repositioned some of the scenes, moving several between chapters. I also cut several scenes out. The end result was a much better and tighter opening to my novel.

I’d highly recommend the Strandfield Café. It’s got great food and a comfortable ambience. You never know who you might encounter. And just up the road towards Carlingford, you can buy diesel at 18 pence a litre cheaper than in NI. With a fill up of the car, your lunch at the café is effectively free.

Tuesday, 31 May 2022

The Moderna Booster

I’ve just had my fourth Covid vaccination. And I realize what you might be thinking. Well, I am an old git. But I’m not quite that old a git. I discussed the matter with my GP and he put me down for the jab. I am clinically extremely vulnerable, but I’m not immuno-suppressed or over 75. Not yet, anyway. I had no reaction to my previous vaccinations, other than a day of tiredness and a sore arm. I was given two Pfizers and a Moderna before. But this time, I did have a significant reaction.

About half an hour after this Moderna vaccination, I began to feel very tired. And this increased. Within a few hours, my head was befuddled and I started the shivers. It was just as if I was down with the flu. I also felt very hungry. All I could do was to sit in an armchair. I actually watched the Giro D’Italia broadcast in Welsh. I don’t speak the language, but I enjoyed the pictures of sunnier climes.

I went to bed early, thinking that I’d wake up feeling back to normal. But the flu-like symptoms persisted for the rest of the next day. I began to wonder how long I would be stuck with these symptoms and whether I was having an unusual reaction. I also realized just how bad it would be to get Covid itself. Thankfully, the following morning, my head had cleared. And I was just left with the normal post-vaccine tiredness. By the end of the third day, I felt pretty much back to normal.

It’s strange how the reactions have intensified over time. And also that they were significantly different to the Moderna booster I had last November. I suppose the fourth vaccine is different to the previous ones, as it is trying to protect you against new variants. Anyway, I am now up and about and grateful for the opportunity to take part in the world again.

Sunday, 15 May 2022

Advanced Crime Writing

I’m very pleased to have been selected for the first Advanced Crime Writing course run by Curtis Brown. Entrance to the course was competitive. I submitted the first 3000 words and the synopsis of my novel. The tutor is Emma Kavanagh. She has written six crime novels and one non-fiction book. She has a PhD in psychology and is an expert on the effects of trauma. I’m hoping to learn a lot and to improve my manuscript. At the end of the course, our book proposals are circulated to the agents of Curtis Brown.

The course takes place via Zoom and Curtis Brown’s online learning platform. During the course, you have to submit several extracts from your novel for comment from the tutor and the other participants. You also have individual tutorials with Emma. The weekly Zoom sessions cover key topics for crime writers.

The course is just starting and the participants have introduced themselves to one another. They include a novelist with two books published, a TV scriptwriter, a memoirist, a short story writer and a non-fiction writer. There is a diversity of work experience, from the Louisiana State Police, to a bookseller, a special needs teacher and a meterologist. The participants come from the UK, USA, Australia, Ireland, Germany and Hong Kong.

Over the next two months I hope to improve my understanding of crime writing, get insightful feedback on my novel and to be stretched as a writer. Emma’s introduction said that she wanted to help us get to the ‘next level’ as crime writers. I’m really looking forward to that.

Saturday, 30 April 2022

Cutting 'The Cut'

Editing is a special and essential skill for a fiction writer, as I discovered when revising my crime novel, The Cut. And what’s more, it is a skill that requires a lot of practice to develop. In essence, you are learning to look dispassionately at what you’ve written and to think about it forensically. You have to ask yourself a series of difficult questions about your writing. And find the answers that are going to make your book better. Editing is also a very immersive experience. You are focusing on the fine detail of your writing and how well it fits into the overall story. This was very welcome during my long wait for the results of my recent cancer surveillance scan. Editing the manuscript was the only thing that managed to divert my mind from worrying about the threat of recurrence for a few hours. So I did a lot of it. Draft two did work much better than draft one, and ended up being 35,000 words shorter. I then submitted this draft to a professional editor for feedback.

This, however, was another source of anxiety. I felt sure that the editor would be critical of my writing and find many flaws. After all, he was an experienced author with several prize-winning novels to his name. But when the report came, it was quite the opposite. He told me that much of what I’d written worked extremely well. He was very complimentary about the voice and character of my narrator, the relationships between the characters, the witty and believable dialogue and the richly realized setting. I felt a glow of pride as I read on. Then he got to a series of suggestions for improving the book. He felt that the motivations of the characters weren’t consistent in places. He also felt that the book would work better if certain scenes were altered and moved to different positions in the narrative. The final problem he saw was that the book was still too long and needed to be at least 10,000 words shorter.

So I started work on draft three. I began with the structural changes that the editor recommended. These also involved adding several scenes. The main job is now to condense the overall narrative. This means going through the draft again, scene by scene, and cutting out all but the essential elements. Then asking yourself, does the scene work a lot better after these changes? Could it still be improved? How well does it fit with the scenes that precede and follow it? Is the tone consistent with the development of the characters that are in the scene? Are there any continuity problems with the content of the scene? And so on.

I’ve certainly become better at editing. And the draft is improving all of the time. But places where I can cut text are getting harder to find. I’m still a bit away on my word count. So I’ll have to get whittling. And perhaps a little more ruthless.