Review: A Column of Fire

Once more this year I find a book I would normally love cursed by its own quality. Or in this case, the quality of what came before it.

fullsizeoutput_332c

This is the third book in the Kingsbridge series. Or at least I guess it’s a series now there are three books. The first book, Pillars of the Earth, told the story of the building of Kingsbridge Cathedral, intertwining the lives and relationships of all those involved against the backdrop of the national upheaval of The Anarchy. The second book, World Without End managed to pick up the story a couple of hundred years later, taking us back to the same place and the descendants of the original characters as the Cathedral undergoes further work. It succeeded in bringing together the same elements once again with enough change to create a new story without feeling like it were retreading old ground.

Unfortunately, while A Column of Fire is an amazing book in its own right it doesn’t quite hit the same notes as its predecessors. This time the story sits during the time of the Catholic/Protestant conflicts during the time of Elizabeth the First. However this time the national event take prominence, with the link to Kingsbridge almost coincidental. Again the characters are descendants of the previous casts, but this time the town of Kingsbridge is merely their home town and has no plot of its own, while the characters take part in the national drama.

This doesn’t make the book bad. It’s an excellent piece of historical fiction. But without the local point of view taking prominence it lacks the same grounded charm as its predecessors. I would definitely recommend this book, but if you’re a fan of the previous books don’t expect exactly the same feel this time around.

Advertisements

Review: Herring Girl

This is one of my “Pick A Random Book I Know Nothing About” purchases, and this time around I had great luck with my selection. Debbie Taylor’s Herring Girl is an amazing book. Almost perfect in fact, if it weren’t for the fact that it manages to disappoint me through its not living up to its own promise. It’s strange when the main thing that detracts from the quality of a novel is itself. That’s how I feel about Herring Girl.

fullsizeoutput_332b

The story is set up with Ben, a 12 year old boy with gender dysmorphia who’s desperate for a sex change before puberty sets in. Learning he has to have a psychological assessment he starts visiting a local doctor who leads him into past-live regression. Together they uncover the mystery of Anne, a young girl who went missing at the turn of the previous century and may, they believe, have been Ben’s previous life.

It goes on to explore the idea of reincarnation and group reincarnation, weaving together an incredibly compelling story and truly beautiful writing. I always take gushing cover quotes with a pinch of salt, but Taylor’s writing is so beautifully researched and realised that it’s impossible not to find yourself immersed in the world of an 1890s fishing town. The passion behind it shines through. I’ve never read a historical novel that managed to so complete put you right there in the immediacy of the period.

But the half of the story set in 1898 is told so well, the present-day sections just don’t keep up. The characters are great, but the story in these parts seems to coast along as a vehicle for the Past Life sections. That’s not to say they are bad, not at all. They’re just not as good as the other sections.

The main thing that bothered me was how the gender dysmorphia plotline fell back the wayside. I thought this was going to be a really interesting story, as it was clear Taylor had done her research and created the character so well that I wanted to know more about this side of them. But as soon as the past-life murder mystery kicks in the original plotline is barely mentioned again until the end.

I also felt that the reincarnation idea and past life regression therapy concept fell into place felt a little too easily. It seemed far to simple for someone to recall a previous life, and the way they were all linked was just a little too easy. The only obstacle seemed to be that certain people didn’t believe in it on principle. It has a lot of similar ideas and themes to Katherine Kerr’s Deverry Cycle, but where in a fantasy novel it’s easier to take outlandish ideas at face value, in a real-world setting I would have expected a little more difficulty.

It definitely picks up again towards the end, and the climax is astoundingly well written and wraps up the story perfectly. But such an intriguing opening and such a emotionally devastating ending, I just felt that the middle coasted along a little too much.

I can’t help but feel I’m being unfair to this book, as I’m only being harsh due to it’s own high standards. But there we are. It’s still a definite recommendation.

It took 19 films, but it finally happened

I made it through Jessie’s song.
I made it through saying goodbye to Boo.
I made it through the garbage incinerator.
I made it through Andy giving away Woody for the last time.
I made it through Carl and Ellie’s life story. 
I made it through Bing Bong’s sacrifice.

But then he sang Remember Me to Mama Coco.

Fotograma-Coco-estrenara-Bellas-Artes_MILIMA20171024_0306_30

Apparently it’s Pixar’s goal to keep making movies until they’ve made everyone, ever, tear up in the cinema.

If you get the chance, go see Coco. I need time to let the immediacy settle, but this may be my favourite Pixar film yet. Certainly this is the first film in years I’ve actively wanted to go see a second time in the cinema.

On a break, or “I hate downtime”

When looking for tips on writing on a book, one of the big ones you’ll be given is that once you finish each draft you should put it away in a drawer for x amount of time. This gives you a break, letting you relax your brain and come back to it fresh.

What they don’t say is how hard this is!

Writing is, by its nature, something that totally engrosses your mind. You’re crafting something by putting yourself in the middle of an imaginary world, creating, destroying and rearranging every little piece one by one. First you work in broad sweeps, then slowly dig deeper and deeper until you’re swapping words and punctuation back and forward as you try and find the perfect configuration of language. By the time you’ve finished a draft you’ve thought and rethought over ever bit of it so many times it becomes impossible to see the wood for the trees. You can remember every change and option not chosen to the point where you honestly can’t tell whether or not you made the right choice.

This is why giving yourself that space is important. You need to be able to clear out your mind and come back to it later with a new perspective. It’s a simple thing, really. Often, problems you couldn’t get through for love nor money suddenly give up obvious solutions you just couldn’t see before. The mistakes that need correcting become clearer, as does the realisation of which bits work and no longer need as much attention.

The problem is how suddenly having nothing to work on is something I’m not good at.

After so long trying to cram as much writing into what free time you have – especially when you have a day-job or family – suddenly having that time free just feels wrong. Today on my lunch break I’ve gone through some messages, organised some photos from the holidays on my phone, browsed social media a little, and written this blog post. And there’s still ten minutes left to kill.

But all I want to is get on with my book!

I think a large part of this is down to the fact that when you’re still looking for your big break its hard to fight the feeling you’re not moving forward. I can’t get an agent without sending them my work. I can’t send them my work until it’s finished. It’s not finished until its good enough. It won’t get good enough without my putting time and effort into it.

And when I’m not actively writing, then it doesn’t feel like I’m trying.I want, more than anything, to get my writing career off the ground. I have a – relatively – organised mind and I know each of the steps I need to follow. But the main step – the process of actually writing the book – takes so long that it can feel like I’m not moving forward at all. I hate the people who say they want something and then don’t try as hard as they can to make it happen. I don’t want to be one of those people, but I can’t help the fact that’s how I feel between drafts.

And so here I am, not working on my WIP, and forcing myself to believe that’s okay.

Luckily I have the fact that there is no point in my working on my WIP until I get notes back from my Alpha Readers. Currently I’m waiting on two more people to give me their notes, and until then it’s pointless my doing any work. And so I’m forced to stay away from my manuscript until they’re done.

I often wonder if this feels different for established authors. I know they have a entirely different set of worries, but when you have a agent and a publisher, when your work has been published before and you have a solid book deal in place, and when you can know that whenever you finish your WIP it will almost certainly get published, is this need to keep writing to get to the point where you can actively push forward with the “real” steps towards getting published still such a big thing? Or are you able to step away when you need to without feeling guilty?

Maybe one day I’ll be able to look back at this post and answer my own question. I can but hope.

Happy New Year

I hope you all had a wonderful Christmas!

IMG_9966

The fact that my jumper, Frankie’s top, and Frankie’s hair all match is a complete coincidence. Please ignore.

So, let’s have a look back at 2017 shall we?

The Year in General

People seem to have mixed feelings with this past year. Some focus on all the unsettled, worrying things that have been happening, while other seem determined to list everything good that’s gone unreported. I think I find myself more in the latter group. While there is certainly a lot of shit going on out there – shit that we certainly need to be paying attention too and using to wake everyone up to deal with – I believe that the general consensus of “It’s Been A Shit Year” is one of those things that people are buying into because people are buying into it. In the same way people go obsessed with the idea that 2016 was “The Year All the Celebrities Died”, I don’t think 2018 has been that bad. Overall, at least. 

It’s just that the bad stuff is so prominent that you can’t ignore it. People like to ignore the bad stuff. We don’t want to deal with it. But it’s important that while fighting the bad we don’t forget the good (in the same way we shouldn’t allow the good to distract us from the bad).

Life is always a mess, is what I’m saying. Make of it what you will, I suppose.

So. What about me? Specifically about me. This is my blog, after all. I think I can allow myself a little vanity and assume you’re interested

New House

We’ve moved house. We’d been in out last one for just over seven years, and decided it was time for an upgrade. So we’ve moved another step out into the fringes of London and found ourselves something a little bigger.

The actual date was in late November, but the months prior were filled with planning, paperwork, house-hunting, packing, mortgage agreements, and – above all of that – that stress that permeates all house moves that comes from knowing that at any point the whole thing could fall apart and dump you back at square one. And the month since then has been an ongoing attempt to unpack boxes, tracking payments, and trying to turn out new house into our new home.

Overall, I have to admit the whole thing was relatively straightforward. We had one house fall through, but found a better one straight away and had a chain of just three, all of whom desperately wanted to have moved by Christmas. Apparently our estate agent couldn’t remember another time when there had been no more than three weeks between the offer being accepted and the completion date. So, go us! 

The problem was that all of this corresponded with the busiest month of the year at work. Yep, no big chunk of annual leave for me. No solid week taken to get everything done in a concentrated block. Just solid work all day followed by sorting out all the details of a house move in the evening. Which lead to exhaustion, and a month spent fighting off anxiety and depression. Just what you need in the run up to Christmas. 

But we’re here now, and slowly getting everything sorted. And as soon as I find my drill bits I’ll be able to get on with that. 

Work in Progress

As you will have seen back in July, I finally wrapped up the first draft of my WIP; provisionally titled New Perceptions. Just before Christmas I managed to wrestle the second draft in place as well. This has been greatly helped that my commute now involved a half hour on the tube which allows me additional writing time.

I’m handling my editing on this one a little differently that my previous works. In the past I’ve usually simply gone through the document from start to finish, moving things around as I find them and adding/removing as I go, with each new “Draft” completed as I reach the end of the document. This time I’ve tried something different and have spent more time analysing the structure and pace. I’ve gone through and broken the whole thing done and built it up again from scratch. I actually found an online course that serendipitously began just after I finished the first draft, which helped a lot working on my second.

So, currently I’m on draft two, which on my previous numbering would probably be around four or maybe five. I think this method is going to be better, as a problem I have is a reluctance to break my drafts up too much and give myself more work to do. This one has a more academic, structural approach. Let’s see where it takes me.

But now it’s with my Alpha Readers, giving me a nice break away from it while I await their notes. Although – literally which writing this post – one of them has come back to me already. All of them are this fast I may need to give myself more time.

2018

So what are my plans for the coming year. At this point the only real goal I’m setting myself is to finish New Perceptions. Hopefully the day job will settle down in the New Year, and as I get everything sorted with the house I’ll have my lunch breaks back. Also, as I mentioned above my commute now includes at leat half an hour on the tube, which means more writing/reading time. I’m planning on reading on one journey, writing on the other.

Thank God for Scrivener on the iPad.

I have contact details for a couple of agents who have said they’re happy to see an early draft, so hopefully I’ll have it in a good enough state to send it to these ones in the spring. Otherwise, I want to have an agent ready version done for September and the Festival of Writing.

But, as always, I know it will take far longer than I’m planning. So who knows.

I do have a couple of other goals for this year, but as of the time of writing they are something I’m keeping secret. Hopefully by the time 2019 rolls around I’ll have already revealed these, but we’ll see.

That’s kind of it, for now. I’d really wanted to to do much more on here for the New Year, repeating my review of the year from last year. Unfortunately I was simply too burned out by the time Christmas came around. Combine that with falling ill once we were back from seeing the family, I’ve just not had the time or the energy.

So now I’ll leave you, and wish you all a wonderful New Year. And hopefully I’ll manage to stay in touch a little better in the future.

Bad 1970s designers. Shame on you.

I’ve been doing some research for my WIP, and has unfortunately meant I’ve needed to look up images of home decoration from the 1970s.
 
Is there any career more tainted, disgusting, or embarrassing to admit than to know you were once an interior designer in the 1970s? To have people know that you were one of those… creatures… who decided the world needed something like this to exist?
51527974a602262d5a644f016bb17770
 
I know that every generation and era has a different style and aesthetic, and following generations will move on to something new and consider the style of the past laughable and old. But seriously, there’s a difference between people looking stupid in old photos and people making the conscious decision to make their homes as ugly as physically possible.
 
Seriously, anyone who lived through the 1970s has forfeited their right to ever comment on design of any nature. Ever.

#1

So I managed to get The Æther Collection into a Book Bubs deal this weekend. It was expensive, but was it worth it?

It may not last long, but I’ll take being #1 across all horror short story collections on Amazon for however long it lasts.

Back to my childhood we go!

I’ve discovered you can download Alex Kidd in Miracle World on the Xbox One.

I am far too happy about this.

IMG_9818

I can’t count how many hours I spent on this game as a child. It came built-in to the Master System II, so anyone who owned that console had it. It was one of those games that I played over and over again, despite the fact that I could never complete it. And even after all this time, when that title screen appeared on the screen and music burst from the speakers, the memories just flooded back. The images, the theme music, the sound effects, every bit of is as fresh as if it had been only a few weeks. The placement of the monsters. Which blocks to smash and which ones were tricks to avoid. Everything.

Master_System_II


Wow, who remembers this little 8-bit beauty? It’s never received the same level of recognition as the NES, but it was still a great little console for its time.

Suddenly I was transported back in time, sitting perched on my little wooden stool in front of the small TV, steadily playing through the same levels over and over again.

But I never completed it. There was just one level, one infinitely frustrating level, that I could not get past. Well, there were a couple of times where I managed to just scrape through, but I never had any lives left afterwards so I was left attempting to get through a new, unfamiliar level with no lives to learn from my mistakes.

So this is my challenge to myself: I will complete Alex Kidd in Miracle World. It’s been over two decades since I played it last, since the Master System fell into obscurity and obsolescence and I moved on to the more advanced consoles my friends owned or PC gaming at home, but now I shall go back and finally defeat this thing.

I thought it might be easier, that the new version would have a save game feature. But no. There’s nothing like that. No salves to make this easier for the modern gamer. No tweaks to bring it up to date. No. This is a start from the beginning and don’t make any mistakes kind of thing. I’ve simply got to play my way through in the same what my 10-year-old self had to.

Wish me luck. It’s time for some nostalgia!

Continue reading

The cat is staying, because of Quantums

It’s funny how the brain works when you’re writing.

In my current manuscript, I’ve had a cat appear throughout. There’s nothing particularly special about it. It’s not a magic cat or anything like that. It doesn’t talk, or lead my protagonist to hidden treasure.

But the thing is, I’ve not known why it’s been there. The idea came to be during the initial vomit draft, just one of many ideas I threw out during that messy initial version of the story. And when I eventually got past that draft and started considering why I’d put it there, I couldn’t work it out. I knew it worked, but not why.

And if there is something in your story that you like but doesn’t actually add anything to it, then in most cases it has to go. “Kill your Babies” is one of the universal mantras you’ll hear in any writing course. If it’s unnecessary, lose it.

But I didn’t want to lose the cat. I just felt that, somehow, it made sense.

And yesterday, while I was working on the first big edit of my first draft, it suddenly clicked. I knew what the cat represented, why it fits into the story where I’d put it, and why it should stay.

I love moments like this, when something suddenly makes sense and you get a fleeting moment of realisation that maybe you actually know what you’re doing.

it’s funny how the brain can work sometimes, isn’t it? These bursts of intuition. That it can throw out an idea, but then take literal months before it can work out why that idea worked. When you get these ideas, I wonder if the full thinking behind them is there in your mind and it just takes a while for it to put it together. Or do these intuitive leaps have something deeper behind them?

Maybe it’s a temporal thing. Where somehow in the brain can get a glimpse of a solution you’ll have reached in the future. Maybe “Intuition” it’s something we’ve evolved to show us that we’re on the right track and not to give up.

It would be cool if the brain had some ability to see glimpses of the future. I bet it would involve Quantums, somehow.  I’m not a scientist, but it feels to me like Quantums must have something to do with it.

Anyway, the cat is named Scrat, and he’s staying.

Quantum Cat

 

88,000 words

So, here it is. At last. The first draft of New Perceptions.


This jpeg of colourful squares is the breakdown of a story that’s taken me about six months longer to complete than I thought it would. Honestly, I had planned to have the first draft completed back in February. February! But the second half of this story just did not want to be written. Act 1 was easy. The whole thing appeared in my head and just needed to wait for me to get it down on paper. But about half way through Act 2 the wall just came down. I don’t think I’ve ever worked on a story where it’s been so hard to put together the plot. I had the Opening and the start of the Middle, and I knew how the Ending would go. I just couldn’t see how to get there.

And so followed six months of slowly creeping forward, one paragraph at a time. Hammering my head against a brick wall until eventually, enough fell away for me to get through.

Writing is a job that may not involve any heavy lifting, but like Hell is it easy.

Hense this lovely colourful diagram. What you can see there is a breakdown of scenes, colour-coded by plotline, and above that is a similarly colour-coded breakdown of the themes and their pos/neg charges. Traditionally this kind of thing is done with Post-It Notes. However, I find that walls covered with Post-It Notes are hard to carry around with you, so I used a flow-chart programme on my iPad.

And it helped. Kind of. It allowed me to get an idea of where the story was heading, and arrange my ideas in a way I could see them all and put them in place as things came together. Honestly, I think it will help more with planning revisions and future drafts than it did while creating the story.

Now I have a little over 88,000 words to play with. I’m happy with this number. I know I’ll likely lose a lot of extraneous description in my next draft, but there’s also plenty where I wanted to develop ideas further, which will bump that word count up again. I’m thinking it’ll likely be between 80,000 and 85,000 by the time I’m done. And then my alpha readers to mark up swathes more to remove, I’m sure.

New Perceptions is, of course, a working title. Who knows what I’ll end up calling it. I have a tendency of growing accustomed to my working titles as I work, but I know this title doesn’t quite fit the story. But that’s a task for a much later draft.

So now I’m on to my second draft, polishing up the obvious errors and the glaring gaps I left while dumping this thing onto the page. There are still numerous sections where I have left in place holder that simply describe what I want to happen. Basically, I’m making it good enough to show to my initial readers for the first round of story notes.

So hopefully as I start giving it out and waiting for notes I’ll be able to spend a little more time on here. I’ve had a few ideas for blog posts and short stories cluttering up my head for a while. Maybe I’ll finally get them out of there and onto here.

Or not. There’s a lot going on in life at the moment. But writing has to take priority, so like it or not, they’ll hopefully be a little more of me around for the second half of the year.

Anyway, back to Scrivener with me. Let’s hope the second draft is a smoother process than the first.