52 books in 52 weeks: Writing Crime Fiction – a 60 minute masterclass

06-historical-fictionI set myself the goal of reading and reviewing 52 writing guides over the year. Here is book six.

Writing Historical Fiction – a 60 minute masterclass by Katharine McMahon took me just over an hour to read from start to finish. I read it on the PaperWhite, and that struggled at first to calculate the total time the book would take to read, starting at 6 minutes, then 12 minutes, then finally an hour and 12 minutes. But it probably took me just about an hour.

This is another no-nonsense, straightforward book that collates everything you need to know about starting to write historical fiction. It doesn’t tell you how to write the book from start to finish, but it shows you how to get started and then ways to develop your story.

There are exercises in this book, which I loved as not one was about closing your eyes and imagining a waterfall or anything like that. Granted, the first few exercises get you to study your favourite historical novels and try to identify what it is you like about them. But then you start to write down your own ideas.

My favourite exercise was the one that provides two examples from history that you can write-along with. The text links you to two historical documents and it’s up to you which one you go for, starting with why you think you chose that one.

Other aspects I liked include:

  • The author defining the historical novel as “anything that doesn’t happen now or in the future”, particularly as my own “historical” novels are set in living memory – even my own.
  • Her advice not to go down the heavily researched path, coming up with pages and pages of copious notes, as the chances are you won’t use much of it. Better, she says, to conduct research on a need-to-know basis – AND she advises on how to research before starting and when to stop and just write.
  • Why she doesn’t create a Q&A pen-picture of her characters before she starts, preferring instead to let the characters grow by themselves and instill within her a “feeling”, or several.

This is another nice little book that I’ll be holding on to and using in my own work. In fact, I liked it so much, I bought one of the author’s novels, Season of Light, set against the French revolution.

Only available on Kindle for £3.48 (or $4.23), Writing Historical Fiction – a 60 minute masterclass is Book 7 in a series from The Guardian.

When a new project begins

writing-bagI’m so excited, I always am when I’m about to start a new project I’ve been mulling over in my head.

The plan was to start the new project in January, but sickness in us and various members of the family put paid to that.

So then the plan moved to February, but then I received a client editing job that is taking longer than I originally imagined it would.

BUT … yesterday I submitted the author questions before I continue, and while I wait for the replies, I can finally write!

I’ve been digesting loads and loads of writing books and guides (and yes, I’m behind on the 52 books in 52 weeks again, but bear with me …), and I really have been thinking about this story for a long time, with two short stories already written featuring some of the characters. These will be manipulated to suit future omnibus short story editions once I have enough material for a complete suit …

… yes, suit. Because I’m finally starting my Stevie Tarot series, beginning with The Fool, which is the start of a new journey, a leap of faith.

The picture above shows what is currently going into the writing bag. Everyone has a writing bag, right? Anyway, from top left and working clockwise, it consists of:

  • the bag itself, bought a long time ago from Sheffield Hallam University book shop
  • my Monsters Inc pencil tin, containing pens in green, red, blue and black, a small ruler, pencils, pencil sharpener, pencil eraser, mini stapler and mini staples
  • a small book of assorted sticky tags the poet brought home for me one day a long time ago
  • tarot card no 0 – The Fool (a colour copy of this is pasted into the front of the notebook)
  • The Tarot Bible by Sarah Bartlett
  • an A5, touchy feely lined notebook from Paperchase
  • Writing and Selling your Mystery Novel by Hallie Ephron (I have the latest version of this book, now updated, on the Kindle)

ALL of my planning notes and maps and diagrams and pictures will go into this A5 notebook. The chapter-by-chapter breakdown, character notes, world notes, tarot notes, everything will go into this book.

When the planning stage is complete, a shorthand notebook will be added to the bag for the first draft. When I move onto another draft, an A4 notebook will be added, and a 12″ ruler. (Yes, I call it a ruler because I’m a Brummie and that’s just the way we roll.)

While I work on this, then, I’ll also be editing a hard copy of my NaNoWriMo 2015 project, Mardi Gras. At the same time I’m polishing the exercises for Diary of a Scaredy Cat. And in between all of that, I edit and proofread books for clients and I write short stories …

So tell me, how do you work?

52 books in 52 weeks: Writing the Cozy Mystery

05-the-cozy-mysteryI set myself the goal of reading and reviewing 52 writing guides over the year. Here is book 5.

Writing the Cozy Mystery by Nancy J Cohen is another short read, although this one took less than 30 minutes. But I thought that was great as I was able to read it through in one sitting, something I’ll do again, but this time trying out what the author suggests.

There is only one actual exercise in the book, but the rest of the content is step-by-step in the order the author recommends. This suits me very well as I’m not really a beginner and I don’t need great reams of advice telling me how to write or create character, etc. I just need some kind of road map of what to do next.

I really liked the author’s friendly, no-nonsense tone and her succinct style. There’s no waffle, it’s to the point, and the only references she makes to her own works are as examples rather than ramming them down the reader’s throat. Therefore, I was actually more than happy to then go and buy the first in her own cozy mystery series, Permed to Death, so I can readalong with the writers’ guide.

I wouldn’t recommend this book for beginners as it really is very specific to the cosy (UK spelling) mystery and it doesn’t go into the great details others do. But for writers wanting to give the genre a go, then it does all it needs to do, in my opinion.

Writing the Cozy Mystery is available on Kindle for 99p (or $1.24) and in paperback for £4.84 (or $6.99).

52 books in 52 weeks: How to Write Fiction – a Guardian masterclass

04-fictionI set myself the goal of reading and reviewing 52 writing guides over the year. Here is book 4.

How to Write Fiction – a Guardian masterclass is similar to the 60-minute masterclass books in that it takes around 60 minutes to read it from cover to cover. There, however, is where any similarities end.

The book comprises a number of contributions from different “experts”, interspersed with writing exercises lifted from The Writing Book: a practical guide by Kate Grenville. And if you already have this particular writers’ guide, I’d suggest sticking with that (I may review it in the future, if I decide to buy a copy).

The introduction by Geoff Dwyer spends most of the time telling you to forget whatever you read in the introduction … Then the “expert” contributors include the likes of Jill Dawson, Andrew Miller, Rachel Cusk and various others that aren’t familiar to me. Two who are, however, in my opinion, provided the two best chapters, both in “Plot”: Kate Mosse and Mark Billingham. Apart from these two sections, the rest of the book was quite verbose. I often found myself drifting off thinking of something else, glazing over or quite simply skipping great tracts to get the the next point.

Personally, I am often happy to see writing exercises in a book, and this one has borrowed plenty. But once again they’re exercises for exercise sake. I mean, what is the point, really, in writing an entire paragraph omitting the letter “e”? Or describing myself in first person, second person or third person? Exercises like this may exercise the writing muscle and there are plenty of people out there who are happy to do exercises that don’t lead to anything. But I prefer something more practical.

Because there is a different person providing the material for each chapter, and sometimes two people per chapter in some cases, this book felt a little disjointed and a bit waffley. And, as other reviewers have pointed out, there are a lot of unnecessarily long and wordy sentences and paragraphs that simply encourage skipping.

Buy this book only if reading writers’ guides is a hobby. If you want to know how to write fiction, choose another book.

Only available on Kindle for £1.99 (or $2.49), How to Write Fiction – a Guardian masterclass is one of a series from The Guardian.

52 books in 52 weeks: Writing Short Stories – a 60 minute masterclass

03-writing-short-storiesI set myself the goal of reading and reviewing 52 writing guides over the year. Here is book 3.

Writing Short Stories – a 60 minute masterclass by Shelley Weiner took me just under 60 minutes to read. But I was lucky to get through it as the literary comparisons and the lack of practical exercises that build on each other almost stopped me in my tracks.

I’m glad I got over myself, and my own personal prejudices, though, as once you get going, it does actually get better.

It was the references to Chekhov, Poe, Hemingway and Dostoyevsky that blocked me as they came across as quite pretentious in a short 60-minute read. But get over that and you do come to the basics of short story writing – and if literary fiction is your thing, then go for it. It’s just not mine.

The exercises then didn’t really build on each other. They consist of:

  • Studying a selected short story by Checkhov
  • Using “What if”
  • Creating a character from a picture
  • Giving your character a voice
  • Creating a setting from a picture
  • Placing your character into your setting

And that’s it. Apart from the last one, they are simply exercises for exercise-sake. I would have also liked to have seen the exercises listed in the contents, as I may then have chosen a different book to buy instead of this one at this stage.

Following chapters go on to give the same old advice about narrative, viewpoint, presentation, etc. But the author has used the age-old examples of the king dying and then the queen dying (of grief), and Hemingway’s baby shoes for sale.

I would much prefer to see exercises in a writing guide that build on each other to produce a finished, publishable piece of work, or even several. And I also think the author could have come up with some of her own examples to demonstrate those age-old ones cited above. To simply recycle what has already been out there for years and years seems a little … lazy, in my opinion.

Saying that, beginners will find this book quite refreshing, with lots of solid, standard, good advice. Experienced writers may find it a little … prosaic. But get past the odd little niggles and it’s a good introduction to writing the short story.

Only available on Kindle for £2.99 (or $4.07), Writing Short Stories – a 60 minute masterclass is one of a series from The Guardian.