Writer and Author

Tag: Writing (Page 4 of 11)

A New Year and a New Decade

2010 has arrived and I’m feeling optimistic.  It’s been an incredible roller coaster of a decade but I’m ready for something new.

As we went into the new millennium I wasn’t married and I hadn’t graduated college. Both those happened in 2000 and I’m hoping 2010 will be just as exciting.  Over the past ten years there have been ups and downs but I’m happy with where I am now – it’s all to play for.

In the last few years I’ve started working in the courts and had my first book published.  My first novel is with my agent and I’ve high hopes that 2010 will be the year it finds a publisher.  Looking back on where I’ve come from I’m proud of where I am and confident of where I can get…one day.

So I’m sharing my New Years Resolutions in the hope that, once they’re out in the world I won’t be able to back out of them.

First on the list is a commitment to write.  Quite apart from the freelancing I already do I want to get more disciplined about fiction writing.  I’ve been talking for ages about posting short stories on this blog to give you readers an idea of the non court reporting stuff I do so that’s resolution number 1.  At least one story to be up on the blog each month.

Next I have to look to my next fiction project.  If Book 1 finds a publisher I’ll probably have to start work on the sequel (it’s the first of a trilogy) but these things can take time so I’ve another book to be working on in the meantime.  I know my characters and have a strong plot outline…what I need to do now is start seriously drafting it.

With all this fiction to be written, on top of the day job, I think resolution 3 ought to be to do with the blog.  I’ve ideas to expand it, including podcasting and possibly themed posts but at the moment all I’m committing to is at least three posts a week – I’ll be aiming for daily but if deadlines loom I’m afraid the paying gigs get priority!

Finally one of those grandiose resolutions that really don’t have any major bearing on day to day living.  I’m resolving to have faith that all this will work.  That even on the slack days when I’ve no commissions and the fiction looks like nothing more than a pipe dream, I will trust that this is all going somewhere and I’m not wasting my time.  It’s so easy to have doubts but I’m going to try to keep them to a minimum this year.

I’ll try and keep all of these resolutions and a few more I’m not sharing.  It’s a good time for promises and this year anything seems possible.

Back in the Saddle

After a break of several months I’m back into murder mode this week.  Next week I’m back in court for a trial and this week I contributed to a new series on murder that’ll be shown in the New Year.  After spending the summer working on fantasy, this week reality came back with a bang.

Normally when I’m working I flit between journalism and fiction easily enough.  I’m used to working on both so it’s a question of what the circumstances demand and I can flick from one to the other pretty easily.  This summer however I had the luxury of writing only fiction.  The courts were on their summer recess and I had an October deadline to get my novel ready for my agent to send around publishers.  I was free to spend my days in a world of my own creation, working on my characters and my plots…all those things that you don’t get to create as a journalist.  One or two have tried but that’s not my way of doing things at all!

So I’ve been writing fiction for the past couple of months, doing the whole writer thing, sitting in my pajamas, drinking too much coffee and hardly leaving the house.  It’s quite different from what’s generally required in journalism.

But that little idyll is now at an end and the day job beckons.  Maybe one day I’ll make enough money from fiction to hang up the Press hat for good but for the moment the media is well and truly the day job.

It’s been a nice break but now I’m back to juggling.

The Work Has Begun!

I’ve been trying to get down the first scene of the new book for the past week and a half.  The blank page is always a little scary but I think I was thrown by starting something so completely new.  My characters were waiting in the wings ready to start the action and I knew where that action was going to take them but the opening sentences I’d tried up until today just didn’t set the scene I wanted to set.

So I fell back on that old reliable – a change of scene.  This morning I packed myself up and headed into town determined to banish the blank page and make a dent in Chapter 1.  I love writing at my desk at home, surrounded by all the the junk that I like to think are prompts when the muse is stubbornly absent.  I’ve had the desk since I was school and it’s always been a little oasis where I know I can work.  This summer when, for various reasons, I couldn’t work there to finish my last book I spent a week going absolutely distracted as I got used to my new surroundings.

But sometimes the old familiars just don’t work.  It’s nice to have the luxury of a writing space at home but as a journalist I’m used to working wherever there’s desk space if a deadline is looming.  With fiction I’m a little more picky, I have bolt holes that I know will always have a condusive atmosphere to get me over a hump, where I can sit undisturbed and write, preferably with a handy plug socket for when the laptop battery starts to die.

When I headed into town today though, none of the usual haunts appealed.  This new book is very different to the fantasy I’ve written up to now (that’s in terms of fiction…not journalism) The character who tells this story had his own demands and I ended up in Starbucks upstairs in BT2 on Grafton Street. As I said before, I tend to be a little bit method when I’m working on a new character.

Normally the clatter of the ladies-who-lunch and the students from Trinity yattering over their lattes would keep me at bay unless there was a particularly pressing deadline.  Today though it was what was needed and the words soon started filling the page.  By the time I’d finished my non-fat latte (well, when in Rome and all that) I had 1100 words of an opening.

It’s only a first draft and will probably go through numerous permutations before I’m happy with it but there is no longer a blank page and the story is suddenly a concrete thing, a real “work in progress”.

Which reminds me.  Having written two books using Word I decided to try out some dedicated writing software this time round.  I’ve been using Word all my working life and it’s second nature but negotiating your way around a100,000 word manuscript can be a bit cumbersome to say the least.  I’ve also been caught on numerous occasions when my computer crashed when I had been caught up in the flow of a scene and hadn’t saved.  Even with Autosave I’d usually lose the last paragraph at least.

I use Twitter a lot these days and it’s a great place to keep up with the more techie things that are going on in the world.  It hadn’t occured to me that software existed for writers – I’d heard of programmes that helped you plot a novel that seem to be marketed to all those desperate to write the next generic blockbuster but a programme that simply existed because writers aren’t necessarily best suited for the standard office word processing programmes.

I decided to investigate and found PageFour.  There are a lot of these programmes out there these days but I’m happy with this one.  You write directly in the programme and your work is saved as an Rich Text document.  This means that your formatting will show up in whatever programme you export to when it’s time to print or send it off (in my case this will be the old reliable, Word).  There are all kinds of handy little features like a search for words you over use and an easily accessible word count.  But the big thing I like about it is that whenever the programme shuts down, whether you’ve closed it or it or the computer have crashed, your work is intact.  When you open the programme again it’s there down to the last letter.

I’m using a trial version at the moment but I think I’ll be getting a license.  I don’t normally plug stuff here but I’m surprised at how handy the programme is so I thought I’d share.  I won’t be ditching Word, it’s what I use for journalism after all, but it sometimes pays to be open minded.

OK sales pitch over and I’m heading back to my chapter but it’s a good feeling to know that I’ve finally made a start and the new book is underway.  Now the real work begins.

Jungian Psychology & MP3 Playlists for Building Characters

So I’m starting the new book.  For the first time in years I’m building my characters from scratch and I’m remembering all the techniques I’ve used over the years to flesh them into believable people who will help to form the plot I’ll build around them.

I grew up the child of actors and I’ll admit my approach is a little bit method but it’s always worked for me.  When I first start work on a character I know them as a gut feeling, the bare bones of them.  I know what they’re capable of and how they think but the surface stuff like dress sense, hair colour, height etc, etc, etc just isn’t there yet.

So there are two techniques I use again and again.  They help to give a framework to the instinctive stuff that all the rest can be hung on.  It might sound a bizarre or, heaven forbid, pretentious way of going about things but it works for me.

Jungian psychology mighsound a bit involved but really I’m only talking about a psychological tool used extensively by recruiters, team building coaches and their ilk.  I spent a few months many years ago working for a crowd of occupational psychologists.  They liked to know what made their staff tick so we were all made to do all kinds of psychometric tests, including the MBTI.

Now despite the fact that the detailed analysis of the types has always reminded me of horoscopes, the test can be a handy for building characters.  Apart from the fact that, to get it, you have to answer a detailed set of questions as your character – which is always good practise before you start putting words in their mouths – it also gives you an overview of what makes your character tick.  Each of the 16 types has a detailed definition which covers what kind of worker they are, what kind of romantic partner, their strengths and their weaknesses.  If you don’t know them already, a detailed read gives you all the buttons you might want to press (if you’re planning on giving your character a hard time.)

I wouldn’t necessarily do the test for every character but certainly all the main ones. There are readily available free versions of the test online.  The actual MBTI test is trademarked so the free versions that you find (like this one or this one) will not correspond exactly but despite what is said about them they give much the same results.  Once you have the personality type that fits your character then the definitions are widely available with a bit of Googling.

I also make playlists for my main characters.  I’m used to working with noise around me so I’m not one of those writers that needs absolute silence to get the words down.  I always have music or the radio on while I’m working and listening to music that my character would listen to rather than my own personal taste helps to get into their heads.  We all listen to music for so many different reasons; because of memories, because we identify, because we are fitting in with the herd or standing out from the crowd.  Listening to their choice of music helps me see through my characters’ eyes, not to mention get into the right mood to write them.

Everyone has different ways of working.  These are just two things that work for me.  As of today my two main characters are personality typed and playlisted.  Now the real work can begin.

Starting Again and Getting to Know New Characters

I haven’t been writing here much recently.  There are a couple of reasons for that.  Firstly the courts have been extremely quiet since they went back at the start of October so I haven’t been covering any trials (which I write up here as well as cover for the Sundays).

The second reason is that after finishing the novel I’ve been working on all summer I’ve been taking the time out to think about what to do next.  The novel was something I’d been working on for years and finally finishing it and saying goodbye to the characters I’ve got to know better than some of the people I know in real life was a bit disorientating.  The feeling was a little like the one when you’re suddenly torn away from a book that you’ve lost yourself in but more so.

I’d spent all summer living in a world of my creation and the realisation that the book was finished, the changes made and the story at an end was rather sad.  These are the first characters I’ve ever fully formed, they’ll be back in sequels but never as they are in this first book.  When I write them again they’ll be older, wiser, different from the innocent kids I’ve been writing about for so long.  I like the way they’ll be in the next book and I’m looking forward to continuing their story but it’s still a strange feeling.

A lot of writers describe feeling down when they’ve finished a book so I presume my feelings are normal but for the moment I’ve nothing to base it against.  I spent so long writing this book when it was just a dream, something I hoped to some day find a publisher for but that I was still only writing for myself.  It was a welcome break from newsroom life and a story I had first come up with many, many years ago but finding a publisher was simply a dream.

This summer I came back to it as a published author.  Devil had been on the shelves for some months and I had since signed up with an agent.  Suddenly my private project had become part of the day job and that brought it’s own differences in the way I worked.

Now it’s finished.  My agent is subbing it around publishers and all I can do is wait and turn my attentions to the next project.  Not going straight back to court meant that while I was deciding on that next project there was nothing else to distract me.  For the first time ever there is no manuscript to tinker on and whatever I start on next will be a completely fresh start.

I had been tossing around several different ideas since I sent off the manuscript but nothing really felt right.  Then last week, having an end of the week pint with the husband we started talking about what ifs.  One thing led to another and an idea started to form.  By the time we had finished dinner there was a plot, two main characters and several supporting cast members.  I knew my protagonist as if he was someone I’d just met and had an interesting conversation with, his female counterpart was sashaying across my mind like a memory.  I knew how the story opened and the main twists the plot will take.  It was an idea that excited me and that I could see had the potential to grow into a book.

So after weeks of having very little of sense to say here I finally have something new to write about.  It’s going to be a bit of a departure, crime fiction instead of true crime, a genre I’ve not ventured into up till now but these characters are insistent and already feel familiar.

As I said it’s been a long time since I was at this stage with a story.  I started the novel I’ve just finished almost seven years ago and back then was learning as I went.  I wrote a first draft without any kind of plan, worked out that is not a method that works for me so went back to the drawing board.  My characters for that book grew organically.  By the time I sat down to give them a more formal planning it was like filling in a magazine quiz on a friend.  It was the same with the plot.

My new characters are just that.  Brand new.  I’ve only had them in my head for a little over a week so now as I sit down to write I realise I don’t really know them well enough to let them run the story (yes I know that sounds a little bit loopy but honestly that is how it feels when the writing is going smoothly, as if you are simply watching events unfold).  So my solution is to start from scratch and slowly get to know them.

The time honoured way is to be able to answer detailed questions on the character.  This is the stage where you build a character with far more detail than you’re ever going to use in the book itself.  I like having a strong character to start with, otherwise I find myself at crossroads in the plot and having to stop and decide what the character would do in that situation rather than simply knowing instinctively.  So for the next week or so I will be answering questions about my characters that sound like security questions for Internet banking.

I’ll know what their favourite pet was when they were a kid, how they felt when it died (if it died), were they the kind of child that would pull the wings off flies, what they would be like as a date, what books they like to read, what music they listen to, favourite films…you get the idea.  It’s a little like the getting to know you stage in a romantic relationship, when you’re both staying up all night comparing tastes.  At the moment I could pick my characters out of a crowded room, by the end of this process I should know exactly what they think of the crowd.

I’ll post again when I’ve got a bit further with all of this, if not sooner. But now I’m off to start getting to know my leading man!

On the Perfect Trial and the Bane of Tax Returns

I haven’t been writing about murder here much for the past few months.  There’s a reason for that.  Apart from the fact I’ve been busily immersed in a fantasy of my own creation (the book I’ve been working on not some kind of breakdown) it’s been very quiet in that department since July.

The courts summer break, through August and September, is always a quiet period.  It’s one of the things I love about working down there…I have two clear months every year to write without a daily deadline.  Last year I wrote Devil in the Red Dress, this year I spent the months editing my novel.

The courts have been back since the beginning of October but it’s been a slow start. The trials passing through the doors of the Central Criminal court haven’t been the type that would easily tempt an editor.  One of the least savoury aspects of this job is the fact that you rapidly start to see trials from an almost commercial standpoint.  There are certain cases that get everyone talking, the one’s with the “water cooler” edge and those are the ones you look out for.

It’s not that journalists are unnecessarily ghoulish, it’s just that we know the trials the public want to read about.  Cases with elements that mark them out of the ordinary so that they stand apart from the standard details of these brutal crimes.  It’s a sad fact that familiarity really does breed contempt so if there are too many of a particular type of trial the public, and consequently the press lose interest.  Every murder used to be big news in the days when there were only a couple a year.  These days we can have one a day so the process of selection begins.  Anything unusual about a trial will elevate it to something of interest.  The bigger the violence, the tragedy or the irony the bigger the splash will be.  It’s not unusual, the selection process was no different in the Victorian press, even if the style of writing may have changed over the years.

Anyway, trials like this have been thin on the ground since the courts went back.  It might seem as though there is always a big murder in the news but that’s not always the case.  There can be a run of trials at some times and nothing for months at others.

So here I am at home waiting on news of one book and the next one not yet started.  This is a time to catch up with all the minutiae of self employed life; updating the diary, filing notes and cuttings, filling in tax returns.  Tax returns are the bane of the self employed existence.  I’m not organised enough to find myself an accountant ahead of the deadline so in the middle of October you’ll find me up to my elbows in receipts, tearing my hair out and shouting at my calculator.  I like the freelance life but taxes are our penance for a bit of freedom.

If you’ve never filled out a return you are very, very lucky.  It’s a labarynthine form and if you’re not mathmatically inclined or, I’m increasingly inclined to thing, in possession of a qualification in advanced cryptography, trying to understand them is like trying to run while waist deep in mud.  They’re doable, eventually, but at the end I always feel as if I’ve handed over a portion of my soul as well as a chunk of my bank balance.

Speaking of which I’d better get back to them.

The Blank Page

So my novel is finished and with my agent.  A whole summer of feverish writing and editing came to an end just as the first leaves fell off the sycamore tree in the back.  I’m pleased with what I’ve written.  I like my characters, I’ve got rid of the plot holes and the thing comes to a satisfactory conclusion.  As far as I’m concerned it’s done.

I’m not saying that it’s absolutely done and dusted.  It can’t be just yet.  Up until it goes into print there will still be time to tweak and trim but from now on it’s not just my baby.  My agent’s got it now and soon we’ll be dangling it in front of publishers to see who bites.  Any changes made to the manuscript from this point in will come from either agent or eventual editor.  I’ve done what I can with the images I had in my head and now it’s out there.  It needs other pairs of eyes over it now.

Which leaves me with the problem of what to do while I’m waiting.  I had hoped to segue happily into a nice juicy trial as the Central Criminal Court kicked off it’s new term this week.  But life has a habit of not being particularly accommodating and the interesting, news worthy trial I was hoping for failed to materialise.  So I’m sitting in front of my computer, staring at the wall in front of me and quietly going mad.

It seemed like a good plan to start the next book on my list to occupy myself while the novel was doing it’s thing away from me.  I have plans, notes, even research on not one but two new books.  There’s another true crime and another fiction (the sequel to the one that’s so recently finished).

After much deliberation I decided to let the sequel sit – for the moment at least.  My characters need a rest and I need a break from the intensity of conjuring up all their emotions, fears and hopes.  It’s hard not to be slightly method when you’re drafting a story.  Editing gives a distance that allows a far more pragmatic approach but a first draft requires throwing oneself in head long only coming up for air when eating becomes a necessity.

So no sequel.  Instead I’ve turned to the next non fiction book I want to write.  It’ll be another true crime book like Devil but a bit wider in scope.  I’ve high hopes for this idea and have been looking forward to working on it for months.

So why is a blank page staring back at me?  I have everything in my head for this project.  I know what order the chapters will go in, what sources I’ll use, all the rest of it.  I even know how I’ll tell the story.  But when I sit down to write, the words will only drip onto the page in sulky fits and starts.

I’ve had the same 300 words squatting in the middle of the page for a week.  Occasionally I’ll move some of them around but for the most part they sit there staring at me accusingly.  On their own they look a little silly, insubstantial, flimsy.  They need the weight of a couple of thousand companions before they can do the job I’m giving them.

But waiting for the kettle to boil for the umpteenth cup of tea today I recognise my predicament.  I’ve been here before.  Every time I’ve started a book, every time I’ve started a long article, going back further, every time I started an essay.  This is apparently what I do when I start a new project.  This is the noisy, frustrating birth of whatever the latest project is.

I wish I could work some other way.  This way is annoying and gives me a headache.  But apparently this is what I do.  I’ll chip away for the next hours, or possibly days, and eventually the block will shift and the words will flow the way they’re made to.  In the meantime,  I think I’ll make another cup of tea.

And Now For Something Completely Different!

For the past couple of months I’ve had my head buried in Word as I worked on finishing my second book.  As the end approached I got more and more tunnel visioned and consequently my updates here have been sporadic to say the least.

Well today I sent the finished opus off to my agent.  Changes have been made, characters further developed and endings tweaked until I was as happy as I was ever going to be.  I’m not saying that I will never write another word in that particular manuscript – there may be changes suggested along the way from agent or, eventually a publisher – but I am now stepping away and saying enough.

It’s been a long journey with this particular book.  The opposite experience to last summers frenzy to get Devil in the Red Dress finished so that the book could be released as soon as possible after the sentencing in the trial.  The new book is not a trial book.  It’s fiction, fantasy fiction at that.

It comes from an idea that had it’s seeds in my childhood.  The manuscript I sent to my agent today might have had very little in common with the story I wrote on my mum’s manual typewriter at the kitchen table one winter when I was about 11, but that was the genesis.  One or two of the characters share names with the earlier attempt, a few bear a passing physical resemblance but the story is a totally different animal.

I’m happy with my finished draft.  I think it can stand up on it’s own but ultimately it doesn’t matter what I think.  From now on it’s on it’s own.  I’ll be open to suggestions with any last minute tweaks but the story I wanted to write has now  been written and it’s time to start something new.

For the past couple of chapters in the edit I’ve been thinking ahead to what comes next.  This book will have a sequel, a few chapters of a preliminary draft already exist.  Then there’s the world that this blog and Devil belong to.  Mainly concerned with crime and courts.

The courts are back in a couple of weeks and I’ll need to check the diary and plan what to do next.  I’ve also started thinking about a follow up to Devil but that’s a story for another day.

One thing I’ve learnt about writing over the past year or more is that it never stops.  You’re either writing  something or you’re thinking about writing something.  There is no time when a little part of your brain isn’t looking and noticing and filing away anything that might be useful.  This is just the way the mind works in this kind of job, it’s a nervous tick, a habit you get into.

I’ll miss the characters I’ve spent the summer with.  They were my first, old friends who I know as well or better than people I see on a regular basis.  I’ll never work with them in the same way again and that’s a little sad but I’m excited about what comes next.

It’s been a long time since I’ve explored the thrill of the blank page.  I’m looking forward to the blocking and the researching and the roughing that must all come before I’m back to the polishing.

So tomorrow I’ll get up and start that something completely different.  The notebooks will be unearthed from their summer resting places and I’ll be back dealing with reality.  There’s a couple of weeks to get organised before the courts are back and I’m raring to go.

So I’ll be writing here more regularly from now on.  The summer’s over and normal service has been resumed!

An Honourable Mention

I was absolutely chuffed a couple of weeks ago to be asked by Chapters Bookstore here in Dublin to do a Q&A for their blog.  They have a regular post in which writers answer 5 questions.  My answers went up today.

I was honoured to be asked.  Ask anyone in Dublin who loves to read and they will tell you that Chapters is the best book shop in town.  That’s not to say there aren’t other great ones but Chapters is the largest independent book shop in town and is always a treasure trove of both new and second hand finds.

Anyway, I just wanted to let you know and I am now going to go and try and shrink my head a little!

A More Fictional Kind of Murder

Today I realised one of my characters has to die.  It’s a surprising realisation to come to, so late in the editing process but the more I think about it, the more it makes sense.  It’s a sad conclusion to come to though, as this character is one of the few who’s survived since the earliest incarnation of this story.  There’s even a picture of him, drawn by a family friend, an illustrator, on the back of the earliest draft of the germ of an idea back when I was only 11 or so.

All the characters feel as real as distant friends.  I know their likes and dislikes, their moods, their faults.  In the early days of planning I would pick out their favourite music, favourite books, favourite films.  It was the same process as new friends or lovers go through…except that I was providing both answer and question.  It sounds nuts, certifiable maybe, but I don’t know any other way of getting to know a character as if they are real.  When it works then, once the story starts rolling, it can feel as if the characters take control and guide what direction a scene takes.  Those are the days when the writing really flows.

But the axe has to be swung.  It works for the plot, gives other characters more passion and is generally a good idea.  I’ll miss this one but the time has come so now I’m going to have to play at murder.

The problem with the day job is that murder is something I’m rather familiar with.  I’ve sat next to quite a few people who’ve killed, over the past couple of years, even spoken to a couple.  As I prepare for my fictional murder a wealth of details present themselves.  Do I use blunt object trauma? Strangulation? A weapon – knife, axe, slash hook?

It sounds callous, ghoulish even, but when you spend a lot of time listening to evidence in murder trials it can be difficult not to sift through the details like a connoisseur looking for the juiciest chunks.  You become desensitised to the horror of forensic details.  As a journalist you look at evidence in terms of the hook that will snare your reader down past the first paragraph.  As a writer you look at the details, the relics of someone’s life and death as components to be filed away for future reference.

So now I’m planning my own murder from the pick n’ mix of details, real and fictional.  It’s impossible to think of a knife attack without memories of dozens of post mortem accounts, the length of the blade, the angle of thrust, the difference in slicing or stabbing gestures.

If poisoning is the option do I go with historical methods – take inspiration from the Borgias perhaps – or do I tread a more familiar path – look into the poisons mentioned in the emails between the Devil in the Red Dress herself, Sharon Collins, and her Internet “hitman” Essam Eid?

I’m fond of this particular character.  It’s a long and interesting association.  I want the death to be a fitting one…the sacrifice will make a better book.  I’ll plan the murder carefully so that it satisfies both the journalist in me and the storyteller.  And then I’ll raise a glass to the fallen character and get on with the rest of the book.

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