Where To Start?

7 Nov

“Where do I start my story?” must be the question writers most frequently ask, whether of others or themselves, yet it is impossible to answer, except with the vague suggestion to start with action. Not, of course, that you cannot start with a description or witty observation, but they will need to be very arresting to seize the readers’ attention.

Action, though, is a little misleading. People tend to assume action must be spectacular, a murder or an explosion, but even in a thriller, that isn’t necessarily so. Action can be low-key, too. Even in the case of an explosion, it isn’t necessary to start with the bang – you could begin with the bomb being planted or even a couple arguing only to be interrupted by this sudden blast: All that matters is that the reader is hooked. You could even cheat a little – rather than the main murder, you could begin with the killer offing an accomplice whose death will remain unknown to the investigators for some or all of the story.

Short stories and, especially flash fiction, are easier than novels as they usually consist of a single scene or a few closely-linked scenes: Begin at the beginning and continue till the end. In a novel, not only do you have multiple scenes to choose from, with the complication of flashbacks, flashforwards and subplots, but you need to maintain and build tension over a much longer span. A really powerful piece of action might make a great opening, but could leave the reader underwhelmed by what follows if you’re not careful.

Let’s imagine a murder mystery: Two friends have an argument, which leads to one being murdered; after the funeral, at the reading of the will, a discovery is made that reveals they were murdered and prompts an investigation. Now, ignoring other tricks, like starting with the ending or the murder of an accomplice, where do we begin?

We could ‘begin at the beginning’ – but, where does the story begin? The start of the investigation, or perhaps more effectively, the revelation at the will-reading, would work. Or, how about at the funeral, as a lead-in to the discovery, perhaps with some foreshadowing of the revelation? Or, we could start with some real action: the murder itself. Or, we could begin with the argument that sets events in motion.

But, those aren’t the only options. The story could begin with the aftermath of the murder or some way into the investigation. Equally, the story could begin between the argument and the murder. Or, we could start well before the argument by inventing some other event, probably a piece of fairly low-key action, for the opening paragraph, and then developing the characters and the reasons why they argue. That’s nine alternatives before we even consider anything sneakier.

But, which one do you pick? That’s up to you – you decide which one appeals the most.

HP Lovecraft made a point of creating timelines of events in his stories so that, no matter where he began the narrative and regardless of the order in which events unfolded on the page, he knew the actual order they occurred in, who was where, etc. Even if you’re not much of a planner, a loose outline of the early parts of your story can be a good way of identifying potential starting points.

Indeed, you could take this a step further and write your story in chronological order from the earliest relevant event, before going back and deciding where to begin the finished story. This might involve cutting some text, perhaps recycling some as backstory, or it could be relocated to serve as flashbacks; or you could move something back to serve as a flashforward. You will probably need to do some rewriting to cover excised details that are important to the plot and to make the new opening work properly as an introduction (you may, for example, find the descriptions of key characters are in earlier, deleted sections), but this is likely to be far easier than staring at a blank page, trying to envisage how to start.

Remember, once you reach the end, you can always rewrite your beginning. So, don’t worry too much. Get started, get writing and you’ll get there eventually.

Free ezines!

28 Oct

Everybody likes something for nothing, and sometimes the free stuff is actually worth something, like these three…

Download Sirens Call ezine – download pdfs of this horror fiction and poetry ezine for free. A new issue has just been released for Hallowe’en.

Tigershark ezine website – request your pdfs of this themed fiction and poetry ezine by emailing tigersharkpublishing@hotmail.co.uk . A new issue will be available for request on Hallowe’en, stocked with horror.

Read Bad Apple webzine and read the young adult fiction online.

In addition, remember that you can request recent issues of The Supplement and Awen in pdf by emailing atlanteanpublishing@hotmail.com and can read back issues of Awen Online online (the webzine is currently on hiatus).

Try something different…

3 Oct

Looking for something different to read? Well, October is Black Speculative Fiction month. You could even win a prize! Lots of events going on in America, but even if you’re on this side of the Pond, you can still follow the links to some fascinating sites or get the special horror-themed issue of Black Girl Magic (out on the 15th).

black-spec-fic-month

Discriminating Editors

30 Sep

Editors should be discriminating, but rather than discriminating taste in literature, some seem just to discriminate. Now, while I support the right of editors to run their little fiefs as they wish, I believe, as I’ve stated before, that the only legitimate reason to refuse to publish work should be the quality of the writing (with the exception of the behaviour of the writer as it impinges upon their relationship with the editor – abusive or fraudulent writers deserve to be banned). Of course, I have sympathy with editors who worry that association with someone with extreme views may taint them, but I think most people are sensible enough not confuse the publication of fiction with an endorsement of views held by their author (and, where the writing expresses uncomfortable ideas, the editor is, of course, free to reject it on those grounds).

But, even allowing that an editor may choose to ban a writer for their personal sins, there is absolutely no justification for barring writers from publication for any other reason. Indeed, I’ll admit I’m not comfortable with anthologies and competitions that are only open to certain groups – I’ve declined to submit to such where I was eligible for that reason – but, they are, at least, intended to promote less-represented groups rather than hold back others.

(I must stress that there is a difference between these and anthologies and magazines, such as Black Girl Magic, that focus upon minority characters: while people from the represented group are likely to predominate as writers – after all, who else is better placed to write about a group than members of the group? – anybody can submit to them and they seek to encourage inclusivity rather than ghettoise writers.)

Given my feelings, you can imagine my disgust at discovering an editor openly declaring they had banned Israeli writers from submitting until ‘Israel gives the Palestinians a state.’ I found it almost laughable as the editor is an American and the USA is one of those countries that refuse to recognise the Palestinian state, while its meddling in the region is a major reason why moves towards a solution are stalled. Further, USA has failed to give the native Americans or Hawaiians their own states. By his reasoning, the editor ought to ban American writers. (And, why are no other nations’ writers banned, such as Chinese writers over the occupation of Tibet?)

But, I have to wonder if there’s more to it than Palestine. While Israel is home to Arabs and Druze who identify as Israelis, to most people the country is synonymous with Jews and has become an acceptable means for anti-Semites to express their racism. It would certainly explain the apparent hypocrisy in failing to ban any other nationalities if the editor is actually a racist.

I don’t think anyone should be excluded from publication for their nationality, nor due to racism.

Still, regardless of his reasons, I refuse to patronise a publication that discriminates, even if it’s a paying market, and I hope other decent writers would do likewise.

However, I wouldn’t ban the editor from submitting to an Atlantean publication; everyone is welcome to submit and I won’t be asking for their race, religion, gender, sexuality, nationality, politics or any other details that might exclude them. I will consider their work on its merit alone. Which is how it should be.

Not Much of a Prize

19 Sep

Occasionally, you will see a writing competition sponsored by a big publisher. Frequently free to enter, these seem like a godsend to writers desperate for a chance at the big time. What could be better than to win a competition backed by a publishing ‘name’ or have your story or poem appear in a professional anthology? And, that’s before we consider the prize money, which is usually a decent amount. I’m certain they receive plenty of submissions from hopeful entrants.

But, read the small print and the prize is seldom as good as it sounds. Almost invariably, the competition rules state that the winner passes their copyright to the winning entry to the publisher. For some writers, this may seem small price to pay for a shot at fame and fortune (or the literary equivalent thereof), but, for a submission good enough to win such a competition, a rather small one-off payment and the kudos of winning and publication aren’t really good recompense for losing control to your work.

Even in these days of web publication, ebooks and print-on-demand books that can keep an anthology available indefinitely without necessarily providing additional payments to contributors, most publishers do not insist on perpetual exclusivity or the signing-over of rights, so there is, at least, the potential to resell your work, and small publishers generally aren’t making too much money from their anthologies and have a chance of going out of business and taking their anthologies with them. Big publishers are likely to be making enough to offer better terms and, if they go out of business, will almost certainly have their assets bought by another publisher.

Unfortunately, it’s unlikely most people bother to read the small print and, if they do, probably don’t really understand just what they’re being asked to sign away or else don’t care, which is why these big publishers keep on promoting these competitions. As proper businesses, not amateurs, they really should treat writers better. Don’t be fooled.

Reviving Classic Sitcoms

30 Aug

The BBC has decided to celebrate the days when it produced high-quality comedy but reviving some of its classic sitcoms in a series of one-offs. The first two to be aired were revivals of Are You Being Served? and Porridge, and they ably demonstrated how to achieve success with a revival – and how not to.

The episode of Are You Being Served? was set in the late 1980s. Unfortunately, that was the first flaw, as it was assumed that nobody remembered the later series of the original series, let alone the sequel Grace and Favour (aka Are You Being Served? Again!). So, we had Mr Grainger back from retirement, despite Mr Humphries having become head of men’s wear (although Mr Peacock received that title, at one point, rather than being referred to as floorwalker – perhaps they had a further restructuring?) and the new recruit was told of Mr Lucas’s attempts to seduce Miss Brahms, ignoring the equally-futile attempts of his successor, Mr Spooner, while a previously-unhinted-at grandson of Young Mr Grace was introduced, despite his seemingly-childless death being the catalyst for the sequel series.

Given that the original cast were all dead, all the original characters had been recast. Mr Grainger was the only one who was near-perfect. Mrs Slocomb and Captain Peacock were bearable, while Niky Wardley was far from perfect as Miss Brahms (although with plenty of potential as a character in her own right) and Mr Humphries was pretty awful. Mr Rumbold looked nothing like the original and seldom sounded like him, while Mr Harman was nothing like the original in any way and an insult (why not just introduce a new character?). It was the new characters that had the greatest potential.

But, it may not have been entirely the fault of the actors or the person who cast them, as the biggest problem was the script which veered between being a third-rate pastiche and nothing at all like the original, giving them very little to work on. There were maybe four good lines in the show. Too often, it seemed they were told to say or do something solely because it was in the original, but without the flair. Which wasn’t a great surprise, given that the original writers are long dead, too.

Porridge on the other hand was written by the original writer and opted to be a sequel rather than a rehash, and, thus, was a far superior product. Instead of Norman Stanley Fletcher, we met his grandson, who was doing time for computer crimes. It captured the feel of the original, while also showing how prisons had changed since then, while managing to be its own product. Although not the greatest of comedies, it was funny throughout with a great deal of potential for more, and I would happily watch a series of it – and, I would expect a series to be even better, as it would doubtless move further out from the shadow of its original and find its feet. This is how you do a revival.

Contracts

29 Jul

There is one area of writing that I really don’t enjoy: contracts. It’s not the contracts themselves that is the problem, but the fact that so many are badly written and most are irrelevant. Of course, one might expect a contract where a lot of money is involved, but I’ve found absolutely no correlation between the amounts involved and whether a contract exists – I’ve had to sign contracts for stories where the odds of ever earning anything (such as an editor’s choice award) are low, while the highest paying stories I’ve sold didn’t involve a contract at all.

Given the small amounts of money involved, many contracts are effectively unenforceable due to the cost of court proceedings (especially as I’m usually on the wrong side of the Atlantic), making the signing of them a waste of time. (I’ve had one publisher apparently fold without sending the complimentary copy or payment specified in a contract, although the book remains available on Amazon, and been unable to do anything about it.)

Unfortunately, not only do many publishers insist on writers signing this pointless agreements, but a lot of them are badly written. Now, the vast majority of publishers are decent people who don’t intend to scam writers, but I’ve encountered more than one contract that, unintentionally, was worded so that I would lose control over my story, and some that are just plain incomprehensible or contradictory.

The problem is that very few writers are contract lawyers and, for most of us, writing is either a hobby or a very-low-paying occupation, making consulting a lawyer for every contract a financial impossibility given the amounts involved. However, there are three things you can do before signing a contract. The first is to ask a professional writer. Of course, we’re not contract lawyers, but we have the experience to spot the more obvious problems and offer advice. The second thing you can do is post your question in an online legal advice forum (just make sure you choose the right country, as laws may be different elsewhere). The third is to ask the publisher to clarify any points in writing and keep a copy (save a screen grab if it’s an email or online message); although this doesn’t override the contract you’re signing, if they later claim to control rights you didn’t realise you were granting, it may help prove a case of fraud if they misled you when directly questioned about the contract.

I hope any editors reading this will give consideration to whether they need writers to sign a contract and, if they do, whether it needs to be complicated. If all you want are first publication rights and a period of exclusivity, why do you need a dozen clauses? Nor does a contract doesn’t need to be written in legal jargon, so keep it simple!