Watching Our Words

Like so many – perhaps including you – I followed yesterday’s coverage of the massacre at the Charlie Hebdo magazine office in Paris by gunmen apparently claiming to have been avenging the magazine’s caricatures of the Muslim Prophet Muhammed.

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Last night, on France 24, during discussion of the killings, a studio guest wondered at one point if too much criticism of Islam was stoking tension with Muslims in France. Michel Houellebecq’s new novel, “Submission,” came up. (The other day, just before the attack, I saw noted that “Submission” had been “Number 1″ in Kindle book sales in France.) Bloomberg View summarizes the book this way:

It was at least symbolic that the cover of the latest issue of Charlie Hebdo was a newly published book, “Submission,” by the French author Michel Houellebecq. The novel’s plot imagines France in 2022 after the election of an Islamist government, which has excluded women from working and opened Islamic schools. The premise is ludicrous (even by 2030, Muslims are projected to make up only 10 percent of the population, and France is among the world’s most determinedly secular countries).

The France 24 guest had made much the same argument about the book being “ludicrous.” (I think he called it “preposterous.”)

Anchor/ presenter Laura Cellier quickly – and quite rightly – replied that the book is fiction. She questioned: Should fiction not be allowed?

Can they both have been right? That there may be “too much criticism,” but that criticism – in all its forms, including via fiction – is going to come everyone’s way in a democracy? Well, yes.

It was – to me anyway, as a writer – eery how the issue had been framed in those terms.

Caricature cartoons, of course, can be hard-hitting stuff – especially if you are on the receiving end. Charlie Hebdo assailed politicians, the religious, most anything, in often the most crass and vulgar manners. In fact, its attacks on Islam have often been relatively “tame” compared to how it has regularly skewed Christianity. For example, this was published last month, and tweeted last night by Paris-resident photojournalist, and Syrian anti-Assad activist (and regular guest on France 24), Emma Suleiman:

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We have all seen what we may support, or treasure, torn apart by critics. Most of us also just take it in stride. We understand it’s called freedom of speech and that it’s a bedrock of our democracy.

Yet we can easily forget not everyone everywhere thinks that way. If you are an author, are you mindful of what you write? Do you ever worry about any possible reaction beyond just a “1 star” Amazon review?

I think on some of the things I’ve touched upon for story purposes – race, religion, immigration, Israel, Palestine, even police brutality, among others – and I do wonder occasionally how some readers might receive them. Sometimes it’s only a sentence or two, and I admit I’ve thought to myself briefly, “Is this such a good idea, writing this?”

I’ve not consciously cut out anything out of “fear.” But I have also been “careful” at times, partly (as I reflect on it now) out of an innate respect that I may actually feel, and which I am perfectly entitled to feel. Moreover, being rude should not be elevated to a virtue that’s beyond criticism either.

There’s a line here, and I can’t say I know where it is. Yet if we ever lose the ability to feel free to speak our minds even in an “offensive” manner (to some), where are we? Somewhere I suspect most of us surely don’t want to find ourselves.

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UPDATE: Anne-Elisabeth Moutet, in the Telegraph….

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….is well-worth a read.

Short Attention Span Literature

Over pre-lunch drinks before he headed to London (on the train) on New Year’s Eve (why would he want to spend New Year’s with his aunt and uncle, right?), I had an interesting chat with my 20 year old nephew. An Oxford Classics student, he is so bright he is frighteningly intimidating.

We ended up discussing modern writing and my books. “I sell Kindle books mostly,” I explained. “For some reason, I feel the print versions may ‘read’ better, but they can be ten times as expensive, and I’ve got no control over that. But if there weren’t e-books, I probably wouldn’t sell many books at all, given the price of the paperbacks.”

We also laughed about the evolution from print to e-reader not yet taking hold everywhere. “The Kindle isn’t big yet in the Classics,” he joked.

Free Stock Photo: A young businessman holding a tablet computer
Free Stock Photo: A young businessman holding a tablet computer

We then moved on to how we write today. Social media – Facebook, Twitter, etc. – has changed us so much, we agreed.

He suggested they have especially impacted how we follow news. “But no one has any time to reflect anymore,” he added. “Journalists rush to publish online, and sometimes they really get it wrong.”

Definitely. So much is happening in so many places, on so many platforms, shared by so many people who also aren’t officially journalists but are certainly worth reading. It’s great in so many ways – we follow people who are everywhere in the world.

Yet we also struggle to keep up. Our feeds overwhelm us. Tolerance for long passages, much less wading through complicated ones, is apparently becoming less.

Despite all the books out there, even e-books, one suspects many people now don’t really read full novels. That’s not a surprise. We all know even newspapers are not what they once were, although there are still some who do read print papers:

My father-in-law, immersed the other day in Britain's Daily Telegraph. There are still people who read print, day old, news. [Photo by me, 2014.]
My father-in-law, immersed the other day in Britain’s Daily Telegraph. There are still people who read print, day old, news. [Photo by me, 2014.]
In my writing, I said, I try to take into account what may be a “short attention span” among some readers. So I deliberately compose short, tight paragraphs. I aim for no more than about five sentences, tops.

“I’ve noticed that,” my nephew replied, having read my first novel.

“But I also want depth and nuance. It’s a heckuva balancing act. Write too wordily, try to say too much, and you’ll lose your readers,” I related. “It’s a shame, because some things do take more than a few sentences to describe properly. A well-written descriptive paragraph is like a beautiful painting.”

Think about it. Look at so much fiction today. It is – bam! bam! bam! – so quick:

‘I love you!’

‘No, you can’t!’

‘I do!’

‘No!’

Eh, no stealing that. That’s mine. I think it’s gotta be the opening lines to a future prize-winning, best seller. :-)

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UPDATE: By sheer coincidence, clicking over for a “read” a little while ago, I noticed CNN has dramatically changed its web site:

Screen shot of CNN's new web site.
Screen shot of CNN’s new web site.

As I looked around, it appears very blog-like. It reminds me even of some WordPress templates. ;-)

There seems heavy reliance on photos, videos, and short headlines. Yes, you can click through to longer pieces of course. But “reading” in depth seems assumed to be almost something that’s done by only the minority of visitors.

The Harshest Critic

As I mentioned the other day, my harshest critic (Mrs. Nello) is now reviewing Frontiers:

“Patricia Hall-Surrey? Oh, please. Seriously? You’re EVIL!”

She grinned mischievously as she said that to me. That character’s name contains an obscure personal reference, and she’d caught it immediately. And it is hardly alone in that among the 95,000 words that make up the book.

Free Stock Photo: Illustration of an owl on a book.
Free Stock Photo: Illustration of an owl on a book.

Until she gives Frontiers her green light, the novel stays tucked away inside my PC(s). The tale has raised her eyebrows a few times, to say the least. Novel-writing is, frankly, great fun – at least once you’ve finished the story and get reactions. ;-)

Have a good Friday!

And this is also my 300th post on here. :-)

Time To Celebrate…. I Guess

Well, Frontiers is finished….

Front cover.
Front cover.

….and so, for all intents and purposes, mentally am I (for the time being). Lastly, final checks as it goes through Amazon’s processes. After it has appeared, I’ll put a link up here in the sidebar…. and perhaps set off fireworks too:

Free Stock Photo: Colorful fireworks in the night sky.
Free Stock Photo: Colorful fireworks in the night sky.

Okay, short of fireworks, how about a celebratory drink?:

Cognac!
Cognac!

Uh, about that. It’s rather early here in Britain right now to consume any of that; naturally that photo is merely for show. At least until tonight. ;-)

I’ve written previously about the first time I’d had one. It was, shall we say, “memorable”…. insofar as I can, err, fuzzily remember it:

The first time I’d had one was in France a rather, uh, relatively long time ago. … I remember having had, umm, one too many. And so had a girlfriend. We were saved when her (sober, designated driver) friend “poured” us two into her tiny (French) car as we three left a party. I recall a lot of laughing among us being involved too.

In Frontiers, at one point James gets himself in a degree of trouble in France due to having imbibed a bit too much of that. His problem is much more serious than that which happened to me in real life. As to what goes on with him, well, you know I will say no more about that here of course!

On a serious note, I’d like to thank you again for reading and following my site. If you can bear it, in weeks to come I’ll probably start yammering on about the third volume in progress. 2015’s project.

Have a good weekend. :-)

“Good grief, that’s just embarrassing….”

Writing, you are your best critic in some ways. If something bothers you as you re-read, it’s definitely not quite there. As in everything in life, listen to that little voice inside you.

I had a moment like that yesterday. It was only a few lines, but it just didn’t read quite as I wanted. Arrgh!

So, on the verge of publication, yep, yesterday I rewrote some of a Frontiers love scene.

I’ve discussed this problem previously. “Intimacy” is so difficult to write well. A real pain. There’s the narrowest of lines between “Got it! That works!” vs…. “Good grief, that’s just embarrassing….”

That issue off my chest (again), how about a “romantic” landscape photo for midweek? Iford Manor, Wiltshire:

Iford Manor, on the River Frome, Wiltshire, last Sunday. [Photo by me, 2014.]

It’s not a “Carson, would you please ask the new chauffeur to bring the motor around,” Downton Abbey type of manor. However, the house is thought to date originally to the late 1400s. Its garden was used a few years ago for a wedding in an episode of the TV series Mistresses.

Have a good Wednesday. :-)

It’s So Profound, It Should Be Shown On BBC 4

In working to finish Frontiers once and for all, I’ve vowed not to spend too much time on the net over this weekend.

I have had quite a few new followers in recent weeks. [Hello!] If you’re interested in what on earth “makes me tick,” and haven’t seen it, a couple of months ago I posted an interview I conducted…. errr, with myself. Let’s call this, here, an encore presentation. ;-)

Free Stock Photo: Illustration of television screens with commercials
Free Stock Photo: Illustration of television screens with commercials

Seeing those posts initially in September, some close to me were sure I had finally, uh, come authoringly unglued.

I assure you I hadn’t, and I haven’t. Writing requires determination and dedication of course. But we also need a sense of humor and to laugh a bit occasionally – including especially at ourselves in having chosen to write. :-)

Hope you have a good Sunday.

A Birthday Remembrance

As you know, I didn’t get Frontiers finished in time for publication today. I had fought to make today (which was slightly earlier than I had planned) in memory of one of the real-life inspirations for my novel(s) – although I never told her that (and never would have). However, she’d known I was writing the first one, Passports. The last time we saw each other in person, in mid-2013, she’d urged me on to do the best I could and said she was sure it would be great.

Free Stock Photo: A mixed flock of waterfowl flying in the sunset
Free Stock Photo: A mixed flock of waterfowl flying in the sunset

She died back on February 2. I wrote a post about her eight days later. If you’d like to re-read it, click here.

Today would have been her 46th birthday.

Have a good Sunday, wherever you are reading this. And thank you for reading, following, and sharing my novel-writing site. :-)

I’ll Do It My Way

Currently, I’m seeing lots around WordPress about something called “National Novel-Writing Month,” also known by its hashtag #NaNoWriMo. I have to admit I’ve paid scant attention to it. I’ve never been a “contest type,” and I’m wary of distractions.

I finally looked at the web site, and realized quickly enough I didn’t need another writing “challenge.” I have one already. For over 10 months, I’ve been up to my eyeballs completing a second novel.

Free Stock Photo: Illustration of a quill pen
Free Stock Photo: Illustration of a quill pen

Understand, I’m not arguing one shouldn’t join in the #NaNoWriMo. It’s a personal choice. If you lean that way, go for it.

I seek on this blog to share various of my novel-writing experiences. I would never presume to tell anyone else how to approach their books…. other than generally to urge anyone desiring to write to stop thinking about it, stop discussing it, stop planning it, and just get on with it. Write the novel! Feel free even to write about, uh, vampires! ;-)

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The last observation above from Béatrice in that Frontiers excerpt speaks to my aim in novel-writing. I believe a book should make us think, immerse us, take us elsewhere, introduce us to those we’ve not known before, and even perhaps lift us emotionally and spiritually. Above all, it should entertain us.

All of that is, at times, perhaps contradictory, which is why there is no “magical formula” or “template” for producing a novel. There are a gazillion ways to do it. Writing is – and always has been, and always will be – an intensely personal, daunting challenge.

It has taken me since January to produce the 95,000 words that make up Frontiers. I wrote pretty much daily – adding, changing, altering, fine-tuning, detailing, cutting out, etc. The only lengthy slowdown was for much of February – shortly after I’d really gotten going – when I’d totally lost heart after the sudden death of our girlfriend and considered giving up on the entire project and throwing my computer out a second floor window. Her death so early in the writing profoundly influenced the overall tone of the tale. Like I said, writing is “intensely personal.”

I didn’t hit “50,000 words” until almost June 1. It’s November 7, and I’m still tinkering with a word here and there in the final draft. Passports is about the same length book, and also took me a similar time to write in 2012-2013.

So when I saw this “National Novel-Writing Month” goal of encouraging a “rough draft” of 50,000 words in 30 days, my reaction was someone is having a laugh. Talk about setting up aspiring writers for disillusionment right out of the starting gate. For given the incredible difficulty in producing a novel to begin with, the last thing anyone new to writing needs is to be urged to churn out a major part of one at warp speed.

I’m underwhelmed. Not my thing. In the immortal words of one Frank Sinatra, I’ll do it…. my way.

Happy Friday! :-)

“Woman’s name omitted”

Given what my uncle had messaged me recently about my perhaps writing a “cozy mystery” novel, I’m now really pleased I’d soldiered on with that Frontiers chapter I’d struggled with getting “right” for months. Whew. Apparently it was worth the effort. One proofreader has emailed me that she was floored by it:

Wow!…. (Woman’s name omitted)’s dilemma certainly holds the reader’s attention….

It is, shall we say, something of “a shocker.” Naturally I don’t want to give away too much. The only hints I’ll drop here are, uh, alcohol, a razor sharp knife, and a scarf, are all involved. ;-)

I was privately quite full of myself over her take. (As you see, I deleted her mention of the character’s name.) And I’ll admit, yes, I couldn’t wait to share it here. After all, that’s what novel-writing is essentially all about: wowing readers and holding their attention. [#fistshake]

A cozy.” Ha! Take that Uncle! I can do…. a bit of “thriller!”

The “Frontiers” proof open to where I am now as I do final corrections. I wasn’t a big fan of the Microsoft Surface Pro 3, but it has grown on me. Aside from the keyboard (sold separately by Microsoft) being hypersensitive – which can be annoying at times – it’s excellent as a combination tablet/PC. [Photo by me, 2014.]

Now back to polishing off Frontiers. I’m almost across the final corrections’ finish line. I may actually get there today. :-)

Have a good Tuesday, wherever you are in the world….

Beware Too Many Cooks

You may recall I posted recently about a Messenger exchange I’d had with my uncle in which he’d suggested to me that I could write “a cozy.” When he did, I almost split my sides laughing. I wouldn’t know where to begin with a crime novel of any sort.

I’ve always suspected he sees me as a gentle type, and could never imagine me producing, say, a “stalker, slasher, serial killer, blood everywhere, horror thriller,” or some such. And in that, he would be right. (Although I’ve got stuff in Frontiers which might surprise him! Hey, I can do “thrilling!”) Still, as a crime novelist, he sees the literary world first and foremost from his perch as a crime novelist.

Although they are “thoughtful” (perhaps even, uh, “gentle” in some ways), I suspect the novels I’ve written would stun him. (The romance and sex especially!) Yet I also suspect that, after he’d thought about it a bit, he wouldn’t be nearly as stunned. So even those who know us well (even a long-published novelist) can’t always give us decent writing advice.

It is worth bearing that in mind. Seeking out too much advice and too many critiques has its own pitfalls for any novelist. As the saying goes, too many cooks spoil the broth.

Free Stock Photo: Hispanic women preparing food By: Rhoda Baer acquired from National Cancer Institute
Free Stock Photo: Hispanic women preparing food
By: Rhoda Baer acquired from National Cancer Institute

Because novels aren’t written by committee. Any five people out there will share their takes on your writing from their own five, entirely personal, perspectives. Other novelists chiming in are similarly biased, as my uncle demonstrated unwittingly to me. Indeed whenever I see authors “judging” and “helping” other authors, I can’t help also but recall my uncle’s bemoaning aspiring writers sending him manuscripts, and his noting he doesn’t really have time to read them (and I sense doesn’t even really want to): he is merely another writer, he says, struggling to get on with his own latest project. (Although, obviously, he’s a HarperCollins published one.)

Consider this too: if those “five” people have their varied opinions about your work, how do you think “100 readers” (likely mostly non-authors), or even 10,000 or more (should you be so lucky), will react to it? There are those who will open (or download) your novel and adore what you’ve produced. Others will roll their eyes that you haven’t quite nailed it. Still others will scoff that you write like you are still in high school and hate it.

Even Shakespeare had – and has – detractors. I had a laugh a few months ago on here also imagining Washington Irving having to cope with disparaging comments on Twitter. Bottom line: you will NEVER satisfy everyone, so don’t even try.

Above all, no one can write your book(s) for you. Yes, you may ask for the views of numerous others, and even a dozen other authors, but what you write is rooted ultimately in your unique background, your interests, your experiences, your outlook, and what you know. In the end, it’s all on you. :-)

November 9 is getting here way too quickly. Now back to polishing off Frontiers. It is entirely mine. No one else is to blame for it! ;-)

Have a good Monday, wherever in the world you are reading this!