Wednesday 9 May 2012

Take a Left at Writer's Corner

So it’s been a while since my last blog post. Why? Well... which is why I’m only writing this now. Did that make sense? No. Actually, I deleted all the excuses and reasons which I had stored up as armour because you don’t really want to know. You don’t really want to know what mundane life-things have happened to me in between posts. Presumably, you’re here to read an interesting blogpost. To be honest, up until this point it wasn’t even going to be interesting but having deleted all that mush in between, I think that’s a pretty good thing to talk about.

When you’re reading a book do you really want to know that after the big party and before the heroine finally succumbs to the hero’s charms that she had to put fresh food down for the cat, that she drew the curtains in the bedroom (which are marigold yellow with orange leaves on them) and that she had to set Virgin Tivo to record an episode of Deadliest Catch which was being shown at 4am?
You want to get down to the nitty gritty of the story that matters. The only exception I might add at this point is if putting fresh food down results in the cat becoming poisoned or throws up in the hero’s shoes causing him to kick the cat and cause a conflict, or because drawing the curtains enables her to see into her neighbour’s house where she witnesses a murder and she and her hero must help police solve the crime.
Okay, those are a bit extreme but what I’m trying to say is you don’t want to read stuff which doesn’t move the story forward in some way. None of it. As a writer, you might think well, I’ve done it for the most part, there’s no harm in slipping in a bit of redundant information here because it feels so good. There is harm! It’s not needed so it should go – all of it!

I know that’s all well and good saying that but as a writer I know just how easy it is to get caught up in the moment, you are so “into” the scene that you just can’t help but describe every little thing that goes on, whether it’s needed or not. And editing that is one of the hardest things in writing. “Killing your babies” as they say. Stephen King, in his book On Writing, quotes a theatre saying (which I’d never heard before): “If there’s a gun on the mantle in Act I, it must go off in Act III”. For any writer who hasn’t read Mr King’s memoir of the craft, then I recommend you do. It’s the best five pounds you’ll ever spend (apart from Keeping the Peace, of course, which is only £1.94 on Amazon).
I found it a terrific help but I still sometimes struggled to put what he advised into practice. I’m a visual kind of person. Loads of instructions mean diddly to me unless I can rearrange it in my head into a picture which makes sense. The way I use Stephen King’s advice is as follows. It may work for you, it may not. Hey, we’re all different but if you’re struggling with cutting down on your descriptive narratives here’s another way of considering it.

Imagine you’re driving in your car in a strange town. You haven’t got a map with you and the Sat Nav isn’t working again and you’re trying to get to – let’s say the library, an old favourite. You stop and ask for directions.
The first person says “Carry on down this road, there are some lovely mock Tudor houses on your right, the Fox and Rabbit pub, some more terraced houses each with a different painted door, while on the left there is a Co-Op, a SpecSavers, a Poundland shop, a Vue Cinema and the Black Cat pub. Take a right into Park Lane, where there is an avenue of maple trees losing their leaves, some Victorian style houses opposite a small green with a skate-park and swings. You’ll come to a set of traffic lights where they are doing some roadworks and you should take a left there into Lower Fifth Street, pass by the bus depot and transport union offices which are painted an off-cream but has graffiti on the walls, past the City Hall opposite the primary school which was used as a bomb shelter during the war and a 17th century cottage where the headmaster lives with his wife. Then you’ll see a TK-Max store with a big car park next door. And the library is your next building along.”
The second person says “Carry on up this road. Opposite the Fox and Rabbit pub turn right into Park Lane then turn left into Lower Fifth Street at the roadworks then park by TK Max and the library is just next door.”

Which set of directions is the more straight forward? I’m hoping you thought the second otherwise we have a problem. The first is just too much. I’m sure it’s nice to know what pubs are in the area and the autumnal maple trees probably do look quite beautiful but you want to get to the library, end of.
In the second example, however, the director hasn’t totally left out a bit of descriptiveness. He or she has mentioned clear landmarks to look out for in order to make the journey easier. That’s great, it’s not completely clinical (i.e. turn right into Park Lane, turn left into Lower Fifth Street), but it’s not overwhelming either. If you took his advice you’d look for the Fox and Rabbit and know that Park Lane is opposite it and you’d hopefully make the turn in time. But the first director has pointed out mock Tudor houses, two pubs, a cinema, some retailers as well and with all that going on you’re probably going to miss your turn-off.
The same applies with writing. If you overload your reader with superfluous information they’re in danger of missing the vital information they need to know in order to navigate smoothly through your book without having to backtrack and get frustrated.
That’s how I think of my writing when I’m redrafting and it makes more sense. If your reader doesn’t need to know it, don’t tell them. But equally so, find a happy balance. Give them some “landmarks” along the way to make the journey easier.

The other thing is “Get in late, get out early”. We’ve all heard that mantra before. We all know it works, it’s proven and it makes sense, but how easy is it to pinpoint when a scene should start? What are you losing by cutting out the two hundred-word introduction and how do you then start the scene without jarring the reader?
Honestly, I don’t know.
Personally, I’ll write the scene with all the trimmings then at the end, once I know what the scene is all about, I can go back and cut out the bits which have now become redundant although they seemed important at the time.
Then there’s the stuff which you want to keep but occur in the cut intro.
Filter them into the next draft. For instance my latest heroine is a big Bonnie Tyler fan. It’s part of who she is so in my opinion is worthy of being mentioned in the story. How do I let the readers know this without creating a whole scene of her driving in her car with the CD player on before the REAL scene where she arrives at the pub and bumps into the hero?
The final piece started with her walking through the pub doorway with Bonnie Tyler still ringing in her ears. There you go. You know what she’s been listening to. You know she was obviously enjoying it if it was loud enough to still be ringing in her ears. The next sentence: WHAM! There’s our hero looking heroic and we cut to the chase.

And so as not to be hypocritical, I’m going to get out now. I’ve pretty much said everything I wanted to say. You’ve read all you need to read. If you reading past this... well, thanks I appreciate your company. Happy writing and happy reading!

Monday 16 April 2012

Keeping the Grand National Peace

So it’s been a bit of a hectic few days with emotions tumble-turning all over the place. First off: PANIC. The formatting of Keeping the Peace went haywire 48 hours before it was due to be published. Thankfully I have a friend who designed his own formatting programme and was able to quickly put KTP through the works and in the end it went live on amazon almost a day before I’d planned. Hurrah! Now cue the excitement and nerves. Yay – my favourite book so far (that I’ve written that is, my ego ain’t that big yet) is about to be shared with the world*. Nerves: will this book be a success? It’s had some great pre-release reviews but will people feel so kindly towards it when they’ve had to buy it?*

So with that lot swirling inside me, Saturday rolls around. Saturday was important for me for three reasons: firstly, weekends are sacred and should be treated as such. Secondly, I’m a horseracing fan and had to watch the Grand National. Thirdly, I’m a writer who’s just released a romance novel centred around the Grand National. I took a risk that the Grand National would go smoothly and no bad press could affect my sales...

Well, we all know how that panned out.

I was very upset after the National to think of the tragedies surrounding two great warriors like Synchronised and According To Pete. With the latter, I keep remembering his owners, an everyday family who bred him and raised him, and how she was on the verge of tears with pride beforehand. So it is easy to imagine the devastation his death would have had on them.
On top of that, the beating racing fans took afterwards from anti-Grand Nationalists just added to the hole of despondency I was in. Everyone’s entitled to an opinion, I know, but I don’t like people telling me how I’m feeling and that I don’t love horses. I do, more than anything or anyone and there is nothing that makes me more proud than watching a grand servant like Neptune Collonges win the greatest challenge in horseracing and be recognised for the hero he is.
But when everyone’s upset, it’s easy for sensitive debates to get nasty, right? Racing gets defensive and lashes out and the label they are already branded with - the one that reads “cruel, greedy, selfish, unfeeling” sometimes looks fitting. But you tell me, when you’re upset, having thousands of fingers pointing blame at you and upsetting you even more, are you likely to say the right thing and should you be judged by that one scenario?

To be honest, I’m already a bit tired of this whole fiasco and like many have pointed out, we should let the dust settle before discussions should begin about improving the safety for everyone involved in the big race (just to clear one thing up: those screens which you saw when the runners bypassed one of the fences were protecting Noel Fehily, an injured jockey. It wasn’t Synchronised). So many opinions are being thrown around from one extreme to the other – from 'ban horseracing all together' to 'make the fences bigger and they’ll jump them slower and pay them more respect'... I thought I would add what I would like to see implemented. It is not necessarily what I think will happen.

First, is there a problem to be solved?

Well, since only one Grand National has been run since the modifications to the fences, we’re left with very few (and possibly fluke-like) statistics on which to judge their effectiveness. But two horses were fatally injured, and that is very much a problem.

Second, identify the problem.

It’s all well and good saying lower the fences, but is the height really what caused those horses’ deaths? No. It’s unclear whether Synchronised injured himself whilst running loose or jumping loose so he is unreliable evidence (apologies if that sounds rather coarse, I obviously think of him as more than just a piece of evidence) on the safety of the jumps. According To Pete jumped the fences perfectly, but was brought down by another horse. Again, the jump was only indirectly involved since it obviously played a part in bringing down the horse who brought Pete down.

Size is not the problem then. Speed then? Certainly, the faster you go the more at risk you are, but at the same time jockeys go that fast because they all want to get the safest position near the front on the inside. A bit of a double-edged sword really. And it’s many people’s belief, including jockeys that if you lower the fences, they are inclined to tackle them even faster than before. So we don’t want to do that!

Jumping prowess then? It’s been suggested that entrants should have completed a course of the National fences in order to become eligible. To show they’re up to the job. A reasonable suggestion until you try find statistics to back this up and here sadly, the complete opposite comes up.
Firstly, not just any horse can run in the Grand National – only the highest rated of those entered (of which the original field is hundreds) make the line-up and all of them have to have won over three and a half miles or more (either three and a half or three, I can’t remember for certain).
Then take a look at the results this year. The winner: Neptune Collonges, who didn’t put a foot wrong the whole way round, had never jumped those fences before in his life. The horse he beat by a whisker, Sunnyhillboy, hadn’t either. The third horse, Seabass hadn’t even been to Aintree before and the fourth horse, Cappa Bleu? You guessed it, he’s run at Aintree before but not over the National fences. So the horses who filled the first four places had never set eyes on those jumps but were still good and lucky enough to come out top.
On the other hand, we have the seasoned warriors like Black Apalachi, who was lining up over the National fences for the FIFTH time and who had come second to Don’t Push It in 2010, State Of Play taking part in his fourth Grand National, Westend Rocker competing in just his second Grand National but nonetheless had won the Becher Chase last year over the same fences – what happened to them? They either fell or blundered so badly that their riders were unseated.
So as reasonable as that suggestion is, there is nothing to suggest that National fence-jumping experience has anything to do with the result.

I have one last piece of ‘evidence’ that I think backs up why modifying the jumps is a waste of time and possibly more dangerous. There have been a few races already run over the course since the last modifications and before the Grand National: the Becher Chase in December (on heavy going), the Foxhunter’s Chase and the Topham Chase – there are possibly more but I can’t think of any right now. Three races over the same jumps, no fatalities.

What was the big difference? The size of the fields in my opinion.

Thirdly, how can the problem be solved?

Lessen the amount of runners and a) there’ll be less speed and scrimaging for position, b) runners will have a clearer view of their fences and c) less runners generally means less ratio of fatalities**.

The Grand National is not the same race it was 100 years ago, it’s not the same as it was 10 years ago, not even one year ago. It’s famous for more than just it’s age – it’s famous for the challenge it presents and that is why it is the most watched and recognised horserace in the world. If we continue to tinker with the jumps, that challenge is going to be so reduced that it is just going to be another horse race and nothing more. I don’t want the National to lose its historicism but at the same time I do want safety to be paramount. With fewer runners – say 25 or 30 – we would have a race that still presented a challenge but with fewer risks involved.

I don’t ignore the fact that horseracing carries deadly risks, but to be honest, living carries deadly risks too. In Keeping the Peace, which is a romance set against a National Hunt racing background, the heroine's main motivation is to run her horse in the Grand National.
Like in reality, I haven’t ignored the risks involved (it’s so tempting when you’re a fan of something with a less than perfect reputation to write about it in the most glowing terms), I’ve included them, and more I’ve tried to portray as best as I can how the people involved in the sport of horseracing react and respond in such circumstances.
I’ve also tried to bring across how horseracing does do good, how it can bring people together, change people’s and horses’ lives for the better and by the time you read those words ‘THE END’ I hope you’ll agree that I’ve portrayed racing in a balanced and truthful light.

That is the intention!

And just because I love the cover which was designed by Pro Book Covers so much, here it is again!

*excluding Asia of course. Come on, Asia! Get Kindling!
** sometimes freak accidents happen and a horse might very well get fatally-injured in a three-horse field, while as we’ve seen in the past, some 40-runner National fields have resulted in no fatalities at all.

Monday 12 March 2012

Cheltenham: to the lengths of the earth I will go

Twas the night before Cheltenham and all through the house
Could be heard Hannah clicking on Festival updates with her laptop mouse.

Okay, I won’t go on. Poetry has never been my strongest point. But there’s something about this time of year that has such magic to it that you can’t help wanting to be poetic. People have written songs about this racing Festival before! Cheltenham is my Christmas (and birthday until I hit 30). For any of you who don’t believe how magical this festival can be, have a look at these youtube clips here then ask yourself ‘Has anyone made a song about the golf Masters?’

The cherry of Cheltenham for me is Friday, Gold Cup Day. Or on a more personal level, it is Kauto Star Day. I was working it out this morning – in the eleven years I’ve lived in England I’ve missed two festivals: the first was the year I arrived and I didn’t even know of it’s existence (the year Best Mate won his first of three Gold Cups), the second was when I was backpacking around Australia and believe me I did my damnedest to see it. I was working on a stud in New South Wales called Coolmore.
There was no chance of taking time off since I was a temporary studhand and where would I go? We were out in the middle of the Hunter Valley – my television set in my digs couldn’t even pick up Neighbours or Home and Away never mind an international channel in the early hours of the morning. Since the stud was owned by some Irish people I thought it was worth giving it a try and approaching them to see if they would record it on their state-of-the-art satellite system.
I trembled in my boots as the lowly studhand approached the big Irish magnate. I was shown sympathy but told it wasn’t possible. So instead I watched what races I could find on youtube the following day. Those were the lengths I would go to watch the festival.

And since Kauto Star’s introduction I haven’t missed one. I have always taken time off work to watch it. I threatened to quit my job when they wouldn’t let me take those days – am I bordering on obsessive? Perhaps, but when it comes to seeing how much Kauto Star and the festival mean to me, you see what extremes I am willing to go to.

This year, my dilemma involves university lectures. If I stay the good swotty student then I’ll be missing the first and last days of the Festival. I have a full day of seminars and lectures and writing groups on Tuesday and I have a presentation to perform for my second filming project on Friday. Tuesday, we also have the Supreme Novice’s Hurdle (maybe not the biggest race of the festival but great to see what we have to look forward to in the future), the Arkle Chase (with a very competitive renewal starring Sprinter Sacre v. Al Ferof), and the Champion Hurdle (I have invested interests in this race because my beloved Zarkandar runs in it – I don’t mean he’s literally mine – but if you read my previous post Nagsto Niches you’ll understand my attachment to him. And he, the young pretender, is up against the old champion Binocular and reigning champ Hurricane Fly.

And then Friday, of course, is just about the Gold Cup for me – I don’t even know what the rest of the card is. All I know is that Kauto Star will be lining up for the sixth time in this race (and possibly the last) in an attempt to win his third Gold Cup. He’s up against Long Run who beat him into third last year same time, same place, but this season Kauto has trumped Long Run in two out of two clashes. Why is he still the underdog? Possibly because he is 12 compared to most of the other runners who’s age averages out at 8 or 9. He also had a nasty fall while schooling the other day. But he seems to be back to 100% now and I have a stupid amount of faith in him.

So that’s how my timetable clashes. Important things will be missed either way. I’ll feel very guilty if I bunk off uni for the races but I will not be able to forgive myself if I miss Cheltenham. I have compromised with myself. Since we’ve now got Virgin Tivo, I’m going to record Tuesday’s action and go to uni. In return for not watching it live I am taking Friday off to watch Kauto canter to victory. The presentation will have to wait until next week. Sorry tutors.

And that pretty much is what the next week holds for me. I’m finding it exceptionally difficult to focus on anything else other than the Festival so the writing of Giving Chase has been put aside for now. After losing my USB stick I am having to retype Keeping the Peace (which is, in a way, a good thing because it’s forcing me to micro-edit) but it’s also put me against the clock if I’m to manage the April release deadline. Another reason why I’ve decided to take a sabbatical from Giving Chase is because I’m currently reading Ruby, the autobiography of champion jockey Ruby Walsh. Since Giving Chase focuses on the lives of two jockeys in particular, I thought it would be a good way to research the more personal side of the sport on top of the broader research which I’ve done.
Needless to say, there’s way more to it than I’d anticipated and I think I’d better stock up on jockey and trainer autobiographies before carrying on with my blinkered take on being a jockey!

I won’t be posting until after Cheltenham so I’ll say where my ‘money’ is going over the next few days (these are not tips by the way!).
Day One: Arkle Chase – Sprinter Sacre; Champion Hurdle – Zarkandar.
Day Two: RSA Chase – Grand Crus.
Day Three: World Hurdle – Big Buck’s. 
Day Four: Triumph Hurdle – Baby Mix; Gold Cup – Kauto Star.

Wish me (and them) luck!

Wednesday 8 February 2012

The Difference Between Delusion and Illusion

So ten days into the new career, do I feel different?  Yes, I feel like a little round plastic thingy, maybe yellow, maybe red, with a line of string tied around my waist – otherwise known as a yo-yo.  My initial bravado of selling my writing was swiftly followed by an attack of inferiority complex and then the burdening weight of responsibility that when people read my books they are expecting the truth.  The first two peaks and troughs seemed to have levelled out now but the responsibility still lingers.
I also felt this almost overwhelming feeling that now I was publicly trying to sell my name that I had a reputation to uphold.  Now I know this is a delusion of grandeur but what if in the far off future somone says ‘No, I’m not going to buy Hannah Hooton’s book; I saw her littering at the train station’?  In my defense I do try to avoid littering and what can you do if there are zero bins at the station?  This public persona delusion seemed to fold pretty quickly when the day after At Long Odds went live I was slipping and sliding the half hour walk to the station at an icy six o’clock in the morning to catch the Cambridge train so I could attend eighteen hours of university and commuting.  Oh yes, I was in a really chirpy mood.  A group of youths, yelling and tripping over each other, approached and the one girl draped herself over me breathing toxic fumes into my face.  Did I think of my author’s reputation at that moment?  No, I was thinking how ridiculous it was to be still out drunk at six o’clock when I was on my way to work.  So in no uncertain terms I told her where to go and shrugged her off.  She then replied with some surprisingly imaginative insults.
Walking away, I thought that it was really quite ironic.  I don’t recall ever telling anyone to eff off unless I was joking.  I chose to curse publicly the first opportunity and really mean it not 24 hours after becoming published.  Now, I’m under no illusions such a thing would have a long term detrimental effect, or indeed have an effect at all – the girl was obviously never going to recognise me again – but it did make me wonder.

That’s the psycho side of becoming published for the first time.  The other side is the facts.  I’m not about to list my sales numbers etc., but I am amazed and thrilled by just how well received the free promo weekend went for At Long Odds.  It has resulted in some lovely reviews on both the US and UK amazon sites and my latest addiction is checking the Kindle Charts to see if it has moved in the last five minutes.
Naturally, my WIP is feeling ignored and unloved.  To make it feel better I completed another chapter (hit the 40,000 word mark – hooray!) and played around with Title and Chapter headings.  Oh, and I found a new picture for my hero, Rhys Bradford.

In other news, I’m preparing to do the last edit and polish of Keeping The Peace and finding someone capable of designing a cover to do it justice.  With any luck that’ll be up for sale at the beginning of April*.
As part of my degree course myself and two other students made our first ‘movie’ on Monday.  Untitled as yet, it is barely a minute long, is one continuous shot (project requirement) and runs to the soundtrack of Postman Pat (not project requirement).  Not Scorsese-material yet, I grant you, but if you ignore my dodgy camerawork and Mark’s dodgy acting and everyone’s dodgy idea of mise-en-scĂ©ne, then I think we did all right.  We’ll find out soon enough.

*deadlines have never been my friend so consider that date tentative