Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Elements of Place and Time in writing an historical novel

-Lutetia - Gallic Roman city.
Eventually to become the city of Paris
I wrote here in February 2012 about elements of Place in the writing process.

 Among other things I said: Element Two is the need to locate the characters and action in a place that adds to, that underpins, that shows rather than tells of the main themes of the novel. Think of the psychopathology of cities such as Dickens’ London and de Balzac’s Paris, of Martin Amis’s London and Ian Rankin’s Edinburgh.  Think of the drawing rooms of Jane Austen, the muddy nightmarish battle trenches of Pat Barker, the Gothic moorland of the Brontes! 

Model of Roman Fortress of Chester
Deva (Chester)
But what if the fuzzy knowledge of much more distant times suffers from a stereotyping of mis-understood history. Part of the text-book rhetoric regarding so-called  Roman Britain involves the taken-for-granted view that the Romans brought everything that is civilised and cultured to these islands.  

For me this is rather like saying that the British  brought all that was is cultured and advanced  the far reaches of its world empire...Or that the Germans brought efficiency and order to the muddled and inefficient European countries they conquered in WW2

Magnus Maximus coin

Coin issued by Magnus Maximus (Macsen Wledig)
during his reign as  co-emperor, holding a laburnum
and Victory on a globe.

But what if - as is the case in my novel - the elements of place are differently located, differently named and exist in a very different time? How can I keep the reader's imagination operating alongside the narrative? What if there is almost no unbiased written evidence to support one side of the story?

With my present novel - set in British/Roman times (AD 383) this factor of elements of places sits in a kind of crosspiece with history. Normally, when one says London, Paris, Edinburgh or The Somme our readers - even if they've not been to those places have an intuitive, residual intelligence of the location of our novel

One way  I am approaching the issue in this novel is to use material objects and artefacts  to supply the incidental close detail of place and time. These are  embedded  within the narrative like fine stitches in a piece of embroidery. My approach is to try to do this without telling or describing (not so easy!). Such objects and items,  after all, are part of the taken for granted world of my characters. In the world of Elen, my main character, The  threads that make up this embroidery would include naming of places and characters, the nature of the  built world and the landscape,  the spiritual beliefs of the communities and the skill sets of individuals.

If this subtle process works then I trust my reader will stay with me throughout the narrative  in this similar-but- different land and in this different time, where human motives and preoccupations are identifiable with those that exist in our own modern world.

The other thing I've done for my reader is to include -  in a section at the end of the novelI call Author's Extras  - annotated lists including one  of places in the ancient world. Another is about people. Another is about subsequent history and events. These are appendices as applied to  fiction. The reader may use them if she or he chooses to further locate  the story in place and time. For some this may not be necessary. For others it may add to their understanding and enjoyment of the novel.

Here is one Author's Extra - this one regarding elements of place for this novel:

Place names in Elen’s World

Note: Wales as an entity did not exist in Elen’s day. I have named her territory West Britain which reached as far north as York, as far west as Caernarvon and as far south as Caerleon.

AgathaPort of Agde in South West France

Aquileia – an ancient Roman city in Italy, at the head of the Adriatic at the edge of the lagoons, about 10 km from the sea

Armorica – The name given in ancient times to the part of Gaul between the Seine and the Loire rivers, extending down the Atlantic Coast.

Luavalium - Carlisle Cumbria UK

Castra Deva – Chester UK

Deva Fluvius – River Dee UK

Eboracum – York UK

Hispania – The Roman name for the Iberian Peninsula

Isca – Caerleon in South East Wales UK

Lugdunum  Lyon in France

Lutetia - Gallic Roman cityEventually to become the city of Paris.

Massalia – French city of Marseilles

Mediolanum – Milan Italy

Segontium   Caernarfon, North Wales UK.

Trevorum – Trier -  Ancient German city on the banks of the Moselle.

Vinovium – Roman Fort  near Bishop Auckland in County Durham

Welsh landscape with pathway. 

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

'Writing, Therapy, & Disclosure'.Revisited.

Changing Draft
 (Some further thoughts on this theme from a post  first Published August 2009)

Writing, Therapy and Disclosure  

An acquaintance of mine is going through a period therapy where her counsellor has suggested that she writes down accounts of matters that she finds hard to discuss.

As a writer by trade I've encountered the notion many times, that writing is naturally therapeutic in that allows the writer and others access to an individual's inner thoughts and feelings.  I've often argued myself that writing regularly acts to reveal - to yourself and sometimes to the world at large  - your inner thoughts and the wilder shores of your life experience.

So it seems inevitable that I should accept the proposition that writing, therapy and disclosure  are inevitably connected. However if you accept the notion too readily  the danger is that it can leave you feeling timid and exposed as a writer.

Thankfully I think it's all much more complicated than this.

Of course, in poetry and prose-fiction the wild surprise - public and private - of such revelations is codified by metaphor and language; by characterisation and contrived narrative. Even so, the wild things are still  buried in there somewhere, to be excavated - in time - by over-eager biographers. Perhaps this is  is a kind of archaeology of meaning.

I am glad to say that pouring yourself incontinently onto the page is a far cry from much personal and professional writing. Those wild things are discernible, self-consciously present in published diaries and journals - often self-censored, shaped up and edited to construct in retrospect an admirable self or a victim-self for public consumption.  They are even more self-consciously present it the contemporary rash of ‘Misery Lit’  memoirs that at one time had special shelves in some bookshops.

Those wild things are also buried in the stylised, ironic prose of journalists who use their own lives as raw material in personal columns, comments and commentary. And they are out there  there in cyberspace, in the un-refereed frenzy of self disclosure on websites, twitters and chat rooms. (And blogs – like this one, you will say!)

You might also say, of course, that getting the wild things ‘out there’ is all to the good. Writing, therapy and disclosure in any form is good for you, isn't it? Aren’t there  courses and workshops which train people in writing as therapy? Don’t some psychologists - as I said earlier - ask their clients to keep diaries to help with analysis?

But in my experience we have to be very careful about this process. I think that just to express and organise your thoughts in whatever form is an empowerment in itself. Submitting them to outside commentary or analysis may be to surrender control - yet again - of your own life.

I've had the privilege  of working with many people, new to writing, who experience a magical release and self-realisation when they find they can write down what has seemed forbidden or inexpressible.

Some of these writers have turned up in workshops. I remember one man - jolly, likeable, easy going - who wrote a hungry, chilling account of  his slavish existence  in an orphanage. He was proud of and - as we all were -  moved by his fluid ability to express his own sometimes terrible experience in rounded prose. One of his stories told of a Christmas when the orphanage had  an official visit from the mayor. Lavish food was laid before the hungry hordes of children. But the mayoral party was delayed for more than two hours and the children had to sit there with the food before them. Then the mayoral party arrived and boiling gravy was poured on their cold dinners and they were forced to eat and show their relish as a public display.

I have also  worked with women in prison, for some of whom writing was like lancing a boil.  This writing was published in The Self Revealed and Why Am I Running.  They appreciated seeing their writing out there in published form. They felt proud and visible. Empowered by their own skill.

I have written my own novel Paulie's Web - see the sidebar here -  as a fictional mirror of my perception of these lives. I've recently been re-editing this novel for a new edition for Kindle and for a future hard copy publication. So it is that I've addressed again the issues I met in the Residency. In some way the writing, therapy and disclosure cycle has re-occurred for me now, first in the writing of the novel and now in my intense re-editing of it. 

In re-reading the work of these woman's  work and mine I've wept with them again over more than one  free-flow articulation of a catalogue of abuse, confusion, despair and corruption of the self. Of course  this can happen to all people - including myself - not just those who end up in prison.   

I was - and am - always careful to say that although I see intense and personal value on encouraging people to write I am not a therapist. All I could and can do is to help individuals with the process of expressing, editing,  laying out and  producing a good looking document.

But I have observed that this level of control over the uncontrollable aspects of people’s lives seemed and seems to be an empowerment and is of itself therapeutic.

I do see that writing, therapy and disclosure has its place in our world. But often the writing is enough. As a writer myself, I know this .


Friday, 9 August 2013

High Quality Self Editing Skills for the Self Publisher

Here are my own recent conclusions and advice regarding the importance of high quality self editing in the world of contemporary publishing. These are highly personal and come after a lifetime of writing many novels and working with gifted professional editors – see my last post.

I’m at the moment very absorbed in hyper-editing my Big New Novel for publication later this year. (More about this in a later post.)  Also have just re-edited and republished my novel Paulie’s Web for Kindle and for hard copy publication later this month (Hooray!).

So it occurs to me that if we – as I am at this moment –   are in the present day climate editing ourselves to the point of publishing we certainly need High Quality Self Editing Skills to produce our work to a professional standard.

Being Your Own Editor
As I said in my last post I’m a great believer in writing the novel that is in your heart, the novel you need to write, not a novel to someone else’s rubric or model.  But editing is different from writing. This hyper-editing process has made me realise that I’m beginning to take the more editorial position where I have become absorbed an editor’s perspective on my book. This does not mean I’ve discovered that I should change the substance or content of the novel; it just means that I’ve become much more aware of the reader and how she or he will see and read the novel; how they will read it and want to read on; how they will enjoy it and look for another novel by you.

The Process
My suggestions below might seem a little elaborate. But if you take it step by step you should end up with a readable, well edited and publishable novel to be proud of. I have to tell you this – elaborate thought it may seem - is much easier than actually writing a novel. I’ve been there and I know this is true.

My basic assumption before we start this process is that you already have on your table a well written novel with a good storyline in whatever genre, and interesting content. All it needs is good quality self-editing.

Setting about High Quality Self Editing

Layout – How it looks is the first thing the reader first sees when they handle a book.

Don’t forget that your computer may be automatically formatted business reports, brochures, and letters. You need adapt these to make them suitable for fiction. There’s nothing worse than trying to read a novel or short story laid out like a business report.

Some guidelines for tackling layout.
  1. Place Chapter Titles a third of the way down the page. I like to use titles but numbers are OK.
  2. Always insert a structural page break between chapters
  3. Text size 11 or 12 points – not larger – that looks amateurish.
  4. Line space I.5  
  5. Indent every paragraph except the one at the head of the chapter when you   place first line on the margin.
  6. If you change place, time or action within a chapter, leave a doubles space and place the first line of the new paragraph on the margin and then continue indentation.

Laid out in this fashion your original drafted, transcribed manuscript begins to look professional. Now you’re looking at it more like a reader. This is a help for the next stage which is -

Passionate Substantive Editing – essential for High Quality Self Editing.
Some tips:

1.Read the text out loud chapter by chapter, right through. Just mark anything that sounds lumpy or doesn’t flow. Scribble in self suggestions. Have - and enjoy – a reader’s dialogue with the text. Insert amendments  that enhance your meaning or improve the flow of your text.

2. Sort out the paragraphs.
Paragraphs can be a puzzle. I meet good writers in workshops who haven’t yet got paragraphs nailed. It’s a bit of an ambiguous area. To a degree paragraphing can be a matter of taste and style. Paragraphs in modern literature are distinctly shorter that those written in novels – say – before 1946.
If we aim for High Quality Self Editing we have to make our own choices regarding paragraphing. Me? I’m of the opinion that white space on the page makes text more accessible and helps it flow forward.
So here are my useful rules of thumb.
·         New speaker, new paragraph
·         New idea, new paragraph
·         (As stated in Layout, above). If you change place, time or action within a chapter, leave a double space and place the first line of the new paragraph on the margin and then continue indentation.
3 That sorted you can now move onto other things
·         Carry out a computer spell and grammar check to iron our residual mis-spellings, expressions and extra spaces.
·         Read the whole text again (I know! I know! But this is still High Quality Self Editing Skills after all.
·         Now get your notebook and make list of the names you use in your story. Check back through your novel and make sure they are consistent.
·         Turn a page in your notebook.  Now go through your novel and check the physical characteristics of your characters (hair eyes etc). Are they consistent? (I had a novel where a central character mysteriously lost a limp half way thought the novel.)  Make amendments to remind the reader of these characteristics as the novel unfolds.
·         Spell/grammar-check any changed sections. Or the whole novel again if necessary.

Hooray! Now you have your complete well edited novel, well laid out and easy to access.

SO NOW give your novel to a literate, well-read friend and supply  a pen and a pack of Post-It notes.  Of course you can could use (expensive?) proofreading services but the highly literate friend can be just as good for those aspiring to High Quality Self-Editing, Attend to her or his queries and make amendments to the manuscript where you think it appropriate.  Make useful amendments but don’t alter the nature of the novel.

Then one final and rigorous spelling/grammar check on your computer and you have what I call a novel in Good Heart.

Finally –More grammar/spellchecking. What, you say? Well, this is about high quality self-editing skills.

So it is near perfect. This is your final chance to look at your novel as a near-perfect whole and you can ask yourself some useful questions,
·         Look at the beginning and end of each chapter. Are there valid connections here in terms of words, phrases or ideas? If not, think about inserting some. It could be a single word or phrase.
·         Look at the end of one chapter and the beginning of the next. Is there forward movement? Is there flow? Is there some energy on the forward movement?
·         Consider the first and last chapters. Do they convey a kind of symmetry in the novel, however ambiguous?  I don’t mean here cute resolutions. Endings are not about explanation or expiation. However there should be a valid connection that momentarily gives the reader (however subliminally) a sense of the novel as a whole.
·          And if you have made your characters live and breathe the end of a novel is just the end on a beginning,
Now …er… one last mechanical spelling and grammar check. Ouch! Don’t hit me!

But now your novel has really benefitted from your High Quality Self Editing Skills. You have become an editor as well as a writer. Your book will enjoy a credible professional presence out there in the world, whether you publish it yourself or allow someone else the privilege of publishing it,

The key to this success is to relish and enjoy the process of producing your novel’s best self -  a self which will appeal to readers because in the editing process you have truly thought of their pleasure in reading it. 

Monday, 5 August 2013

Visionary Publishing

I am currently preoccupied with two exciting editing tasks:

  1.       Having completed nine tenths of my Very Different New Novel  I have gone right back to the beginning to tackle the super-edit of all time before I flourish with confidence, knowledge and insight on that vital last section.
  2.        I am re-editing an earlier novel - already popular on Kindle -to publish it in hard copy and to publish the revised edition again on Kindle.

This has made me think anew about the nature of publishing.
My Current Cave

In what now seems like the good old days my books were edited by experienced professional editors, the main one of whom was brilliant, insightful and enabling.  In writing and publishing more than twenty novels, having worked with this great editor and a couple of good ones.  Their informed, functional and ultimately visionary approach to editing has been an education. All of this contributes to my own  present exciting task of last-stage editing.

Nowadays the responsibility for proper last-stage editing for publication is more and more the responsibility of writers themselves. This is very much the case with the varied and very different aspects of self-publishing, including Kindle and other eBook publishing.

One has to admit that one outcome of this is the problem of under-editing that one does witness in eBooks. Although I reflect that in their hurry to sweep through a story very fast this might matter relatively little to modern readers. The jury’s out on that one.

Fundamentally I think there’s been a sea change in the nature of professional editing. One aspect is that modern commercial non-writing editors who – often before the fact of writing -  guide, commission writers to produce what they see is ‘hot’ in the market. This is why we are treated to variations on  Fifty Shades of Vampires, Mutant Teenage Masochists, Uncaged Rampant Soldiers, Uncaged Rampant Housewives.

The outcome of this in the commercial field is a body of competently written, derivative  narratives as consumable, digestible and forgettable as cornflakes and going in the same direction.

Now no wonder the Writers in the Caves are turning with relief to various forms of self-publishing.

The current Business Model that dominates publishing forces even idealistic editors to root around frantically for the Next Big Thing. What seems to escape them all is that the Next Big Thing only becomes visible in retrospect and such a novel will be the outcome of some writer obsessing away in her or his own writer’s cave, producing some idiosyncratic story that will find a very new way to pluck the heart- and mind-strings of dedicated readers.  

It’s ironic that some such books do in the end become commercially successful through being  ‘found’ by commercial publishers, having been market-tested for then in the eBook or self-publishing process. (Less risk for them here, of course.)

 To discover the Next Big Thing good editors and their managers need to value risk-taking. This is so even when serving the Business Model that appears to demand a Sure Thing for its investment.

For them – however idealistic they are - the Writer in the Cave is no Sure Thing investment at first. They need to learn again to take risks to nurture interesting fiction which will still be enjoyed by a very wide readership. They need to have a new vision.

Until then we Writers in Caves need to become better and better end-stage editors of our own work so that when it gets out there into the public domain it’s as good as or better than the commercial competition.    

NEXT POST: Visionary Editing – My Top Tips for First Class Last-Stage Editing.

Not the next Big Thing
but an original novel
bought and borrowed by
many thousands...

From my Writer’s Cave.W


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