I gave her my little story and she handed me back a novel…
The leaves are falling, the nights drawing in.
But there’s something about shorter days and the swelling darkness – that desire to huddle inside – that draws stories from us.
Do you have a short story you know just needs a polish before you send it out for a competition? Is your novel finished but you’re unsure if it’s good enough to snag an agent or publisher’s eye? Are you self-publishing and need feedback or editorial advice?
I can help your writing shimmer.
She helped my manuscript shine and made it much tighter. I have no doubt this helped me gain an agent in the querying trenches.
Caron McKinlay, The Storytellers
I’m offering 1/3 off all critique packages if you book before the end of September.
Crispina Kemp is a blogger, photographer, prehistorian and writer who has just released her fantasy series – The Spinner’s Game – for pre-order on Amazon Kindle (see links below).
Following on from my previous post where Crispina related the books’ evolution from initial ideas and blog posts to finished novels, she joins me this week to discuss mythical inspirations and future projects.
LL: Hi Crispina, thanks for dropping by.
You’ve described The Spinner’s Game as a story told across five books, as opposed to a five-book series. But what did you take as inspiration?
CC: The inspiration hides in an earlier book.
I had written a story set in the Neolithic period in southwest Britain with an antagonist named the Head of Kerrid. Keen as I am on Celtic mythology, I took the name Kerrid from the Welsh goddess Cerridwen. But I realised this antagonist needed a backstory. Why was she called the Head of…? Why was she so against my protagonist? And what were her mysterious powers? It was at this point I slid that particular story onto the backburner and focused instead on Kerrid.
LL: So Kerrid began life as a goddess?
CC: I chuckle to myself. And answer yes.
LL: A story told across five books suggests a high word count. Was that as you planned it?
CC: No, definitely not. I didn’t even want a trilogy.
For years I’d used the local library for reading fiction and know there’s nothing so annoying as to become lost in a book, only to discover it’s book six in a sixteen-book story (e.g. Wheel of Time) and there’s a three month wait for the others.
Besides, what traditional publisher invests in a trilogy from an unknown author?
On first completion, the book weighed in at 150,000 words. But even that is too high for a debut book. How to trim it? I paid for a critique. With my next version, I doubled the wordcount. Oops. And with every subsequent edit the wordcount grew. Though with the final brutal tidy-up and edit I deleted out 200,000 words! Oh yay! The wordcount across the five books is now 550,000 words, which averages at 110,000 words per book.
LL: If the story is told across the five books,must a reader read every one?
CC: I’d recommend it, but it’s not essential.
Kerrid takes the five books to complete her quest, but each book offers a complete story. I’ve been careful not to leave the reader dangling, yet with sufficient incentive to read the next book.
LL: Why ‘The Spinner’, where did that come from?
CC: I love word-play and have an affinity with textiles.
I liked that The Spinner might be a spider spinning its web or she might be the person who spins the thread from the fleece. If the latter, that spinner spins a yarn… i.e. a tale. If the former, that spider spins a web to entangle, delay, hold captive, and ultimately to devour. I liked that the Spinner might be both creator and destroyer. And as with yarn and thread, the word ‘web’ is loaded with imagery.
LL: How long has it taken to write The Spinner’s Game?
CC: From the very first draft? That was back in 2006. But I’ve not worked on it continuously.
When I arrived at a wordcount of 500,000 (in 2009) I knew no publisher would take it so I set it aside… until 2012 when I created two blogs, one as a regular blog, the other to carry the story that has now become The Spinner’s Game, posted in weekly instalments. It took three years to complete! Meanwhile, I worked on other stories.
I thought the blog’s potential for ‘world-wide’ exposure might satisfy me. It did not. In November 2017 I announced my intention to publish the story on Kindle. The story now took on its five-book structure. And since then it’s been beta read and critiqued and pulled apart and rearranged and revised, and edited, edited, edited. Until here we are. It has been a long journey.
LL: And what are your plans for the future? Any more books in the pipeline?
CC: My critique partner is critiquing my next book as we speak.
Written in 2012, it combines two novella-length historical fantasies I’d written earlier with one of a contemporary setting to create a fantastical time-slip story. As with The Spinner’s Game, I posted it on my blog in instalments. Now that’s to receive the full KDP treatment. And after that… yes, I do have more planned.
The e-books – The Spinner’s Child, Lake of Dreams, The Pole That Threads, Lady of First Making, and The Spinner’s Sin – are available on Pre-Order. But Pre-Order isn’t available on paperbacks; those become available shortly after the publication date of Saturday 21st March.
The easiest way to access the books is through Crispina’s Author’s Page on Amazon.com. From there, a click on a book will take you to whatever your usual version of Amazon. Alternatively, crispinakemp.com/books has all the book descriptions and the Amazon links.
As a gift for those who Pre-Order, Crispina is offering a full-sized, full-colour fantasy map of Lake of Skulls (see image below) as a high resolution (2048 x 1536 px) pdf. Just send proof of pre-order (a screenshot would be ideal) via her Contact Me page and a copy will wing its way to you.
‘Lesley Howard?’ Patricia pulled on her cigarillo, puffed a cloud of blue grey smoke into the air. ‘Is that the Brief Encounter chap?’
‘No, that’s Trevor Howard. Leslie Howard was Ashley Wilkes in Gone With the Wind.’
Patricia selected a card from the hand she was playing and slapped it on the green baize table. ‘So in answer to the question, “which film actor would you want to be”, you choose the one who loses the girl.’
Bobby rubbed his stocking feet against the flank of a dozing Labrador. Firelight flickered around the living room, casting picturesque shadows over the threadbare rug, the stacks of mouldering newspapers. ‘Always seemed like a decent sort,’ he said. ‘Shot down over the Bay of Biscay, 1943.’
‘A dead war hero? So decent, so proper, such a good egg.’
He recognised the hard chink in her voice. ‘You and Scotch do not make happy companions.’
She raised a hand. ‘I’m just saying you sound very alike, you and your dead actor.’
‘Always doing the right thing. Fighting for King and country. So noble. So very, very bland.’
Bobby reached for his own glass. New Year’s Eve and she was as impossible as always. Well, this year he refused to bite. ‘Who would you be then? Greta Garbo, I suppose, wanting to be alone?’
Patricia’s teeth chinked against her glass tumbler as she threw her head back, laughing hoarsely. ‘No, not Garbo. Too sulky. Perhaps Marlene Dietrich in Morocco. Remember that scene? Her in a top hat and tails?’
‘Huh. Very, very you.’
She raised her glass. ‘I always was the butch one, dear.’ She drained the last of her Scotch, rolled the glass between the palms of her hands. ‘Ideally, I would have been Gable.’
Patricia nodded. ‘That sharp moustache, the oiled hair, stamping around the Deep South, shooting Yankees.’ Then with a watery smile, she added, ‘Not giving a damn.’
I’m currently planning a new novel and these are two of the main characters. Their spiky relationship keeps drawing me back and Patricia talks to me, even when I don’t necessarily want her to.
For reference, the novel is set in the early 1970s and they’re both in their 70s, hence the selection of old film stars.
When I was at school, pretty much my favourite thing was creative writing. Back then I wrote dark stories with plenty of ghosts, fairies, wicked stepmothers, vampires, monsters and ordinary kids like me being caught up in fantastical situations. Only my protagonist’s use of a magic amulet/sword/potion (supplied by a mysterious stranger, of course) or their own untapped abilities would win the day.
Many of those stories finished along the lines of
And they were never heard of again…
My endings have (hopefully) improved, but otherwise I pretty much write about the same things. Love a ghost story, would write vampires but they’re a bit ‘done’ and though I might not employ magic potions, I still recognise that my heroes and heroines – even if they aren’t a magical Chosen One – should find qualities within themselves to achieve their goals.
One major thing that has changed is my ability to plan.
When I wrote those childhood stories, and even when I began writing novels, my enthusiasm for an idea would have me rushing to my exercise book/keyboard, hammering out scenes in the order they appeared in my head, plucking characters from the air, smushing the whole thing together like play dough, hoping it would stick together.
That worked when I was a kid. Or at least I was happy enough with the results. As an adult? Not so much.
With my first book (my first three in fact, all unpublished) I returned to the same, tried and tested method of sitting in front of a screen and emptying my brains. The result had some pleasing moments… and flat, aimless characters, meandering plots and an end product as loose as Nana’s knitting.
Then I began to write for a women’s magazine and funnily enough, the editors required rather more than
Well, there’s this girl and I’m thinking maybe she falls in love and does some other stuff – probably to do with horses or goats – then she argues with the guy cos he does something stupid, but then he kisses her…
No. Editors want the first part of a proposed serial, they want character bios. Most of all, they want a synopsis.
Now, if you’re like me, just the mention of the S word will have you scuttling into the corner with a blanket over your head.
But once I’d dragged my inner writer kicking and weeping to the task, I actually found something interesting. A synopsis makes me focus on the shape of the story, its highs, its lows, the start, the resolution. It helps me know whether the idea is going to hang together and whether I can tell the story I want in the required word count.
It’s a cliche, but a synopsis is like having a Sat Nav in your car. You might take a different turning here and there, but if you have one – a good one – it makes it a heck of a lot harder to get lost.
So on my current journey through the realms of Novel (fifth go and yes, still unpublished), I’m taking a Sat Nav with me and not just relying on a trail of breadcrumbs to get me home.
How about you? Do you plan before you write or just go boldly where your creativity takes you?
Toward the end of this year, I had a particularly inspired time as a short story writer. This was due – in very large part – to the change of seasons.
Autumn and winter days are gloomy and brief, the nights long and forbidding as one of the original Grimm fairy tales (before they censored the really nasty bits). The weather here in the UK is by turns warm, wet and windy, and clear, still and crystal bright with frost.
While the summer inspires me to be outside, writing never feels a more attractive prospect than during the colder months, when there are no butterflies to chase and bees to bother.
And so this autumn I found myself entering several writing competitions*. Okay, it helps that Halloween brings a swollen crop of writing challenges and there’s nothing excites me more than dipping my stubby toe in the murky waters of the dark and the creepy.
The idea for one competition sprang from another favourite past time – television.
The Antiques Roadshow was on the box. For those unfamiliar with the programme, the Roadshow is a BBC staple (it first aired in 1979) which encourages people to raid their attics, empty the contents into the grounds of a stately home and stand for hours in the pouring rain/blazing sun waiting for an expert to tell them their treasure is worthless tat or – very occasionally – that it really is treasure.
The fun comes in watching the reactions of the owners as they hear the news, usually falling into two camps,
The ‘Well-I-love-it-anyway-despite-how-obviously-ugly-and-worthless-it-is’ Camp
The ‘It’ll-stay-in-the-family-despite-being-terrifically-ugly-and-worth-more-than-my-house’ Camp.
Which if you believe them means no one sells anything that’s been valued – ever.
Anyway, we were watching an episode that featured Victorian mourning jewellery made from human hair. Because the Victorians had very different views on death and thought it perfectly acceptable to pop their dead granny down to the photographic studio to have her portrait taken for the album before lopping off her hair and having it woven into a brooch, a watch chain, a ring or even a framed family tree – if there were enough dead relatives to make a tree of course.
Watching this fascinating piece, my writer’s mind wandered …
Along the back streets of Victorian Manchester, to a lace maker down on her luck who one day takes on a rather unusual commission …
Don’t let anyone tell you being away from your laptop/typewriter/notepad is a waste of writing time. Watching TV and films, reading books, going for long walks and communing with bumble bees all have their place in the writers’ life and in feeding your inspiration.
Just make sure you get your bum on a seat afterwards so you can carve a story from those sparks of creativity.
*Of the other three stories I wrote this autumn, I wasn’t placed in one and haven’t yet heard about the others. Watch this space. Or not, because, let’s face it, I’ll only write a post if I win.
Writing novels is a strange way to spend your life.
You take months (in my case, years) working alone on a project then there comes a point – if you want your baby to develop, to grow and not remain swaddled to your over-protective breast forever – when you must push what you’ve made into the world and watch from a safe distance to see if it will fall on its face or walk, perhaps even run.
But what if it manages to both face plant and saunter cockily round the block on the same day?
A few weeks ago, I learned I’d come second in a Writing Magazine competition (more on that nearer publication day). My prize was either a modest amount of cash or a critique of 9,000 words.
Now, as I’m a writer with heaps of artistic integrity and a yearning to polish my craft until I can see my squadgy face in it, I opted for a critique of my Urban Fantasy novel opening.
On Tuesday the critique popped up in my inbox and I avoided reading it for three days.
This was my Schrödinger’s cat moment. I left the email unopened for the same reason it takes me weeks to check the numbers on a lottery ticket – if I don’t look, the unread critique/lottery ticket has the potential to be at once a marvellous review of my talent/worth millions and a hideous rip in my self-esteem/a worthless scrap of paper heading for the recycling bin.
Better not to know, right?
Except of course, wrong. I had to know because otherwise what’s the point in any of it? I opened the document …
And read the most delightful feedback I’ve had in a long while. The opening was engaging, the reader said, the characters realistic and sympathetic. My descriptions were good. I create a sense of mystery and the only thing that she truly found disappointing was not being able to read more.
Now, I’m British. Pretty reserved generally.
I tell you, I was dancing round the kitchen in my slippers after reading that. I fist bumped the air and I’ve never fist bumped anything in my life before.
Filled with renewed self-confidence, I sent a (very polite) follow up email to an agent I sent my chapters to back in August and submitted to three new ones. This could be it. If a professional reader at the UK’s bestselling writing magazine thinks my story has promise, it could be the vehicle that sees me become a published novelist, right?
Towards the end of the afternoon, another email popped into my inbox. From the agent I’d sent my (very polite) follow up to.
After apologising for taking so long to get back to me, she took around a page to say:
That no publishers want Urban Fantasy just now.
That the perspective in the first scene was confusing.
That the premise was too well-trodden to grab her interest.
Basically, that she didn’t think the story was strong enough to sell.
At this point there was not another euphoric little dance around the kitchen. A professional had now told me my story was unoriginal, not good enough to warrant a read in full.
A black hole, a nobbly Hell especially for writers would surely now open up in the lino and swallow me whole. Tiny demons armed with nothing but sharpened quills, reading extracts from Fifty Shades of Grey would poke my eyeballs for all eternity, whispering, If E.L.James can get published, why can’t you?
Of course, this didn’t happen.
Because she also:
Said the mystery at the heart of my story was a strong one.
Said I wrote well.
Actually gave me a personal response, took time to read my submission carefully and gave me guidance on how to improve. And anyone who’s been down the submission route will know that getting any kind of personal response feels like a small win.
So, what have I taken from yesterday?
That writing is utterly subjective. That what one professional enjoys another will not.
That I need to be more adventurous with my story telling, not just thinking outside the box, but climbing out of the box – hell, I just need to burn the bloody box!
And that I can write. I really can.
And for now, that’s all the speck of gold I need to keep me panning for more.
NB For my dear, generous beta readers, Maureen, Chris,Jane, Karen, Sammi, Jane and Lauren, I’m not giving up on finding Caro and Neil a home just yet. And whatever the story’s merits, you’ve helped make it that way. Many thanks again, all of you.
I don’t mean that in a bad way, because you’re like me – you’re drawn to reading and writing on subjects from the darker realms of your imagination and that’s great, right?
When you close your eyes or put pen to paper/ fingers to keyboard, you’re mind is not teeming with big-eyed Disneyfied, fluffy bunny fiction, spilling over with love and flowers and happy endings.
That’s not to say everyone your write is a sociopath with a taste for human flesh, but if your characters are good people who rescue small children and help old ladies cross the road, they are made that way so you can do horrible things to them.
Preferably with pits of magma.
And horned beasts.
Given that you are a fellow twisted soul who needs a creative outlet (and let’s face it, we’d all be very afraid if you didn’t have an outlet), you might be interested in this writing opportunity at The Wyrd magazine.
So if you’re an author or artist who has
a fondness for weird and slipstream themes
Pop along here. Closing date is the end of this month and good luck, siblings.
*Of course, if you’re genuinely weird, you’ll spell this WYRD
Have you ever visited that portion of Erin’s plot that offers its sympathetic soil for the minute survey and scrutinous examination of those in political power, whose decision has wisely been the means before now of converting the stern and prejudiced, and reaching the hand of slight aid to share its strength in augmenting its agricultural richness?
So begins Amanda McKittrick Ros’s novel, Delina Delaney. I found this quote on the Goodreads site with the tag wtf-does-this-mean. And no, I haven’t a clue either.
Now, literary fashion has changed a great deal since Ros published the book in 1898. If he were writing Bleak House (1853) today, I’m not sure even Charles Dickens would have dared begin with a discussion of the grisly London weather, wonderful though that passage is, complete with mentions of fog, mud, umbrellas and a Megalosaurus. Imagine the tattoo of red pen from a modern editor.
‘Never open a story with the weather’ is one piece of writing advice often given. As is the need to trim your prose of flabby, unnecessary words – edit, edit, edit is our current mantra – and make your writing as clear as a mountain stream to your reader.
None of which seem to have been a priority to Ros.
The writer was famed for her circumlocutory language. When she wrote in her debut novel, Irene Iddesleigh,
When on the eve of glory, whilst brooding over the prospects of a bright and happy future, whilst meditating upon the risky right of justice, there we remain, wanderers on the cloudy surface of mental woe, disappointment and danger, inhabitants of the grim sphere of anticipated imagery, partakers of the poisonous dregs of concocted injustice. Yet such is life
it probably never occurred to her that she could have said –
Why is it we always feel most fed up when something good’s about to happen?
What are we, then, to think of an author who – in her last novel, Helen Huddleson – lumbered most of her characters with a fruit-based name (Lord Raspberry, Cherry Raspberry, Sir Peter Plum, Christopher Currant, the Earl of Grape, Madame Pear)?
Well, I can’t advise any modern writer to ape her writing style and it seems famous authors would support my decision: the literary group The Inklings (which included C.S. Lewis and J.R.R Tolkein) held competitions where the winner was the member who could read from one of her books for longest without laughing.
But I do admire her no nonsense attitude towards critics, the absolute faith she had in her own work and the way she was prepared to defend it.
In these days when most authors are loathe to get into online arguments with readers over snippy critiques or even outright, troll-like oceans of bile, Ros reacted to a poet’s criticism of her debut novel by printing a 20 page rebuttal in her follow up novel.
No shrinking violet, our Amanda.
So if I think she was deluded in her own talents, she had more self-belief than most of us.
And that is definitely something to aspire to.
What do you think of Ros’s verbiage? Do you agree with the critics or do you long for a time when the circumlocutory phrase was en vogue? Are you tired of this demand for tough edits, long for the return of purple prose?
Now, the very lovely Olive O’Brien (children’s author, publisher and founder of The Writing District) recently asked if I’d like to take part in an author interview for the site. Well, who’s ego could resist that little massage?
So, if you’d like to read about what inspired me to write the story, who some of my favourite authors are, and who was better, Duran Duran or Spandau Ballet, do pop along and read here.
If you’d like to read the story before the interview, here it is.
I’ve talked about that old writers’ nemesis, rejection several times on this blog.
Well, when I say ‘several’, what I really mean is ‘many’ (here, here, here – okay, you get the picture).
You see, the problem is, that rejection for a writer is about as easy to avoid as raindrops in a thunderstorm. You can run as fast as you like, but baby, you’re gonna get wet.
I’ve had a fair few rejections – many of the short stories I’ve submitted to competitions and magazines have been rejected. But let’s face it, you should (theoretically) only be spending a handful of hours on a short story, so yes, you work hard on it, you love it, you nurture it, but your whole personality isn’t invested in it in a big way.
You’ve not lived with it for months – years – drafting and redrafting, sculpting and resculpting, deciding it needs completely taking apart and rebuilding all over again because if its findamental flaws. And knowing that decision will take you months to achieve.
Because that’s what you do with a novel.
You get to know the characters so well that if you’ve set it in your own city, in buildings you know, you’ll find your eyes drifting there every time you go past, wondering if those people are actually inside, what they’re doing, who they’re hanging out with.
You’ve lived with them so long, there’s actually a small part of you that believes if you went inside and wandered the corridors, knocked on a few doors, you’d find them and finally be able to say hi face to face.
It’s okay, it really is a very small part of me that thinks that – well pretty small anyway.
Now, I don’t know how many of you are hoping to publish a novel the traditional route, but if you’re not a potential novelist you may not be aware that trying to get direct access to a publisher these days is tougher than getting an audience with the Pope.
Most of them don’t take unsolicited submissions and if they do, the manuscripts run the risk of sitting in the attractively named ‘slush pile’ for a year before being scanned by the intern. Just occasionally, the publishers usually closed to manuscripts will have ‘open submissions’ where unagented authors can try their hand.
I’ve sent manuscripts to three such open subs – one too, too early on in the process, a second just a few weeks ago, both resulting in rejection. Neither was pleasant, but neither was it devastating.
The third was different.
I submitted last August and waited.
And waited … and waited.
In October some people had rejections, but I dodged that bullet.
At Christmas I still hadn’t had a decision.
Finally, in the New Year, an update was posted saying that anyone who hadn’t yet heard had made it to ‘second reads’, the next level of the filtration process. That was pretty exciting in itself.
Two more months go by.
By this time, I was haunting a couple of forums, waiting to see if any of the members had rejections, reading their chatter, their encouragement to fallen peers.
I started to hope,
Than finally, after waiting 7 months, I had my email.
I’m sorry to say we will not be moving forward …
Was I disappointed? Hell yes.
Is there a tiny part of me wondering if I’ve wasted years of my life writing a book no one will want to publish? Err, yeah. But, weirdly, only a small part.
You see, I’ve got something now no one can take away – I’ve earned my stripes, man. I’ve ridden the rejection rollercoaster that every great (and yes, not so great) writer has ridden. I’m a passenger on the same train and I actually feel I’ve drawn a tiny bit closer to my writing heroes, shared a character shaping experience they’ve all been through.