Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Little Sir Hugh.

In the late 70s a friend played Commoners Crown to me, an album by Steeleye Span. I was familiar with Bob Dylan and the like, but this was my first introduction to folk music in the traditional sense.

I was a teen and I can clearly remember being blown away when I heard Little Sir Hugh, the album's first track. I spent ages examining the record's cover, a carved crown consisting of thousands of people. On the back were the names of the band's members alongside small carved figures. No further information, no internet to rely on. My brain went into overdrive, imagining these medieval musicians misplaced in time.

I soon became a fan. Buying Steeleye Span albums was no easy task in the pre-computer world. Suburban record stores never stocked them. I had to hunt through catalogues and order them by title alone.
Little Sir Hugh is still my favourite track on that album. It tells the story of a young boy who is playing with his friends who kick their ball over a wall. A lady invites him into her garden to retrieve it, but instead tricks him and murders him in quite gruesome detail. The song is told from Hugh's point of view, as his ghost tells his mother of the murderous events. I knew it was a very old traditional song, but I had not realised where and why it had originated.

My wife is from Lincoln, in England, and so we visit there quite regularly. I've walked up Steep Hill and visited the iconic Lincoln Cathedral many times. I  never realised until my visit in August that these were the very places where the events in Little Sir Hugh took place.

The true story is tragic, an unsolved murder which resulted in false accusations against the local Jewish community. A few years later, this incident led to all Jews being expelled from England. There are still a couple of buildings on Steep Hill (Jew House and Norman House) that existed in that time, and were in the area where the murder occurred. I had seen them before, but this time I visited them with renewed eyes.

And then in Lincoln Cathedral I managed to find the shrine to Little Hugh, a shrine where his body is interred. It was last opened more than a century ago and the remains of a boy were indeed found inside. The lady at the information service in the cathedral was helpful, permitting me to read four pages of notes on the history of Hugh. She asked me why I was interested, and I mentioned the folk song - which she'd never heard of.

All these years I've been walking right past the site of one of my favourite songs. Now with the knowledge of its origins and a bit of research, both the song and my wife's hometown took on a new life.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Letting Go.

I keep a list of story ideas. Sometimes there's a whole paragraph, other times there are only a few words. I have a list of titles I think may fit somewhere along the line, a few quotes I've seen that may come in useful. Even stories I've commenced that have nowhere to go yet.

In the past few weeks I've been trawling back through this list, grabbing some of the ideas and writing the stories. It's a wonderful feeling when I finish a piece that had its genesis some time ago and has since been kicking around in the back of my brain.

When I sit to write I have some idea where I'm heading, but I don't usually end up exactly where I thought I was going, or I take unexpected detours along the way to where I was going. And the end result is always better than my original thoughts.

I learned some time ago to let the story go where it wants, to let it have its head.

And it works. Whether it's your own subconscious taking over, because it has a better sense of what's needed than you do, or whether its just an element of randomnity, I don't know. And it doesn't really matter.

Learn to let go. It's something I've started doing, and thus far I've been thrilled with the results.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

On The Move Again.

You know that plateau I mentioned a couple of weeks ago? The one where I thought I was stuck and my writing wasn't improving?

I think I've started moving again.

No, I have no new sales to report, although I'm hopeful I'll be able to announce some soon - once those editors read my masterpieces stuck in their slushpiles. But I'm writing with a renewed confidence and self-awareness.

The penny finally dropped. A couple of things I learned a long time ago have finally fallen into place. I knew these writing guidelines/techniques in my head, and I even thought I was applying them to my writing. But this week I realised I wasn't, not to the extent I should have been.

And BAM! It all made sense.

I'm really enjoying the process of writing at the moment, and I really like the resulting stories. And I look forward to having them published.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

It's Full Of Stars

Last week I read where a writer was upset they'd only received a 3 star rating for a novel on Goodreads.

I love Goodreads. It's a fun site, and I use it as a guide when I'm researching books to read. But I also consider it to be wildly inaccurate at the same time.

Let's say a local author with a pretty good debut gets 5 stars. That's as high as the rating system goes. Really? It's so good that it can be compared with the greatest literature of our time?

Okay, so we liked the book, enjoyed it enough to consider buying the next offering. But 5 stars is too high, so we drop it down to 4.

Fair enough. Let's jump over to IMDB and check out some of our favourite TV shows. Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, West Wing - all sitting between 7.5 and 8.5. Hmm, so they're averaging (quick maths conversion) 4 stars.

Is our friend's debut as good as those?  To be honest, no. Those shows are amazing. Alright, so we have to drop it to 3 stars, if we're going to be fair. But now that's not looking so good. It's average. We don't love 3 stars, we think it's an OK rating reflecting an OK read.

We all get a bit hung up on ratings these days. And with good reason. With the increasing onus on authors to promote their own work, reviews and ratings seem to be one way to try and stand out above the crowd. These days, unfortunately it seems everything on Goodreads is above average.

I've seen poorly edited, poorly written self-published novels receive 5 stars. I've seen brilliant classics receive 1 star. I know we all have different tastes, but you have to question how much we can trust these reviews and ratings.

I've been fortunate enough to receive some 5 star ratings for my stories. (And no, it wasn't from my Mum - they were from strangers and even professional reviewers.) They made me very happy indeed, but I don't think I would compare my writing, which I consider to be still developing, to some of the all time greats.

Not yet anyway.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

He's So Low.

As a teenager I started to read Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles. I can remember thinking it was pretty weird, and I think I only got a few pages in.

I still have that book - I never got rid of it, but for some reason I never went back to it. Until now.

One thing that surprises me is how naive some of it is. For example, the idea that the first expeditions to Mars will be undertaken by undisciplined oafs who brawl at the drop of a hat, get drunk and throw their beer bottles in canals. They sound more like a pirate crew than our brightest and best.

Once the colonising ships arrive on Mars, they pretty much land anywhere and wander off claiming land. Even when these stories were written I find it hard to believe Bradbury thought colonisation wouldn't be controlled by authorities.

Then as soon as nuclear war erupts on Earth, everyone (and it literally is everyone apart from 2 or 3 people) board ships to desert Mars. I suspect if the story were real, it would be quite the opposite.

Many of the stories don't really fit with the others, there are inconsistencies with the world building, inconsistencies in Martian behaviours and history. Some of these stories were obviously placed on Mars simply to squeeze them into The Chronicles.

Not to say I didn't enjoy them, I absolutely loved them. Which says a lot about some of the ideas in there, but once again I am reminded that Science Fiction is not about the future, it's about us.

Oh, and the title? It's a reference to a Kenny Everett joke. "He's so low he could kick a Martian in the chronicles..."

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Pah, Proofreading Is Over-Rated Anyway.

About two weeks ago I was facing a writing deadline with twenty four hours to go and a story that wasn't working.

The story is fine, it just wasn't going where it needed to go. It needs time to sit and congeal, before being reshaped and lashed into place. It will happen, but it wasn't going to happen in time for this deadline.

The deadline was firm. Online submission system means they shut you out at midnight, and they don't take late subs. After deciding to abandon my work-in-progress, I was left with two alternatives. I could either not worry about submitting to them, or start something new.

I didn't want to miss this market, and I felt it wouldn't be good for my own self- discipline as a writer if I let it slip past, so I decided to start a new story.

I banged out words, banged out some more the next morning, and finished the first draft only twenty minutes before the deadline. I quickly printed a copy, started proofreading and making minor changes on the screen. Unfortunately I only managed a couple of pages and then realised there were five minutes left.

It's a good thing I write quite clean copy. I had no choice. I sent it and received the automated receipt with a couple of minutes to spare.

Then thought of the one short paragraph I should have included.

Sigh.

I tried not to let that bother me too much. I tried to forget the story - no point crying over spilled milk and all that. In fact, I haven't even gone back to look at it since.

Until now.

I picked it up a couple of minutes ago and read the ending. It's pretty decent, and I'm pleased with it. I'll have a great story to tell if I receive an acceptance for a first draft. It's a good story, though, and I have no doubt it will sell. It won't need much in the way of revision.

And who know, it might just go as it is. It's fresh, hasn't been polished yet and sometimes that works. Plus, miracles do happen.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Giving Up Or Pushing On?

I've recently been having a bit of a writing crisis.

The sales I've made have been good ones. The editorial feedback I've received on my stories has been great. The comments from readers has been excellent. Yet I continue to feel as though I'm not advancing.

Is it just my imagination or am I on a plateau? Others seem to be scooting past me, better and more frequent sales, receiving more publicity, being invited into anthologies, having their work read and reviewed - even if they've only had one or two minor sales.

Jealousy? Yes, probably there's an element of that in there. Those are all the things I want - and more.

I recognise that there are some really talented writers out there who will advance quicker than me. I recognise that there are writers out there who network better than I do, who are more approachable and are more frequently seen. I also recognise that circumstance (luck?) can play a small part in all of this.

I read a post this week from Brad R. Torgersen. I knew Brad (online) way back before his first ever sale, and I've been thrilled to watch his career bloom. I've learned a lot from Brad. I don't always agree with everything he says, but I consider him an inspiration in many ways. While I disagree with some aspects of this post, it once more made me question whether I should continue writing.

I saw a bunch of comments on a forum about writing and rejections. A whole lot of writers consoling each other with "Don't feel bad. It's not your writing, it just doesn't fit the market." Which may or may not be true, but mostly isn't. And since I've been receiving more rejections than acceptances, (and only form rejections from one market in particular) I've been reflecting on what it means for me?

The upshot of all this? I've come through this crisis more determined than ever. I'm writing more than I have in a long time.

But we're an insecure bunch, us writers. As Hari Seldon would have said, "See you next year at the next crisis."