Some thoughts on writing, revisited

I wrote the following about eighteen months ago in reaction to a lot of the advice to writers I’d seen posted here and there about the internet. It started as a rant but I managed to tone it down by the point of posting. As I keep bumping up against my pet hates, I’m reposting it in an attempt to achieve equilibrium.

l. Grant yourself unfettered access to the entire English language. Do not fret unduly about using words or parts of speech others have misused or overused or put on a list of ‘things to avoid’. All you need consider is whether you are using the right word in the right place for your work.

2. ‘To be’ is a very strong verb. If you don’t believe me, reread the first ten verses of the KJB translation of The Gospel according to John or else the first sentences of 1984 or The Bell Jar or Bring up the Bodies or More Than This. You may decide to use it sparingly but few verbs are more powerful in declarative statements.

3. Don’t rush to judgement when a sentence is written using the passive. No crime or sin is being committed.

4. The presence of ‘was’ does not automatically render a sentence passive. Your writing life will be easier if you can distinguish the grammatical passive voice from the past continuous (otherwise known as the past progressive or past imperfect) form of a verb.

5. Feel free to make use of dialogue tags other than ‘said’; people do indeed ‘whisper’, ‘shout’, ‘hiss’, ‘scold’, ‘murmur’ or ‘dictate’ upon occasion. That said, unless you’re writing a very particular sort of fiction, ‘ejaculated’ is probably best avoided these days.

6. Fiction isn’t Latin or academic prose, so it’s fine to use contractions, to split infinitives and to end sentences with prepositions if you wish to.

7. Too much showing is as tedious to read as too much telling. Assume intelligence in your reader: there’s no need to show, tell or explain everything.

8. A little description can go a long way. The well-placed detail is the key to world building, whatever genre of book you’re writing.

9. Sweat the small stuff! Anachronisms, factual errors and unwarranted assumptions will play havoc with a reader’s ability to suspend disbelief so do your research and get the details right. Pay attention too to internal consistency. That matters, as much if not more than external consistency.

10. Be open when people offer their opinions on your work, consider carefully what they say, but do not feel obliged to follow their advice if it goes against your grain (and, yes, this goes for everything I’ve written here, except point 4).

I feel better now.

Posted in personal opinion, rant;, thoughts, writing rules | Tagged , , , | 13 Comments

Imacah’s song

There are several songs in After the Ruin Like the map, they’re there to give the impression of a world that is rather larger than the story between the covers of the book. The book was inspired by ballads so it felt right to include them; besides, I like writing verses as much as I do prose.

This one belongs to Imacah. He’s a child of five, singing this in time to his skipping.

Three kings beneath the tree are seen
Of day and night and might have been.
But day and night fill dark and light
There is no time for might have been.

The red king, black king and the green
Say was, was not and might have been.
I know what’s what, I know what’s not,
I’ll never know what might have been.

Three kings beneath the bone-bare tree
Say will, will not and it might be!
If I do what another will not
Can you tell me what might have been?

The three kings are important, of course. Who they are, and which of them – red, black or green – has the last word, is revealed by the end of the book.

And, because I like it very much, here’s the map:

Posted in After the Ruin, fantasy novel, Hadley Rille Books, Harriet Goodchild author | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

As I am, so shall you be (villanelle)

I know this blog has wandered a long way from folk songs and from fantasy. I’m still listening to the former and blocked on the latter. Now, and for the foreseeable future, I’ll be posting the odd (very odd?) poem here, when I can manage them.

I read somewhere that villanelles started off as a comic form. This one isn’t laugh-out-loud funny but I did intend it to have a black humour about it. The refrain, As I am, so shall you be, is a fairly common momento mori on old gravestones, though my narrator isn’t yet quite in her tomb.

As I am, so shall you be

‘Smile,’ you say, ‘and look at me!
I’ll take a picture of this time.’
As I am, so shall you be.

You do not care for what you see –
I’ve heard you – Sadly past her prime!
‘Smile,’ you say, and look at me,

Seeing a second infancy,
Foolish, withered, hoared with rime.
As I am, so shall you be,

And, once, you looked quite differently:
‘Again!’ you’d beg. ‘Please! One more time!’
Smile? you say. And? Look at me,

Child, who once sat on my knee
Gumming and babbling an old rhyme:
As I am, so shall you be.

‘Here’s the picture – can you see?
A lovely record of our time.
Smile,’ you say, and look at me.
As I am, so shall you be.

 

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Pantoum: All the time there is

The prompt for this was a composite photo of many different clock faces. I can’t find the picture now (note to self: save things!) but you all know what a clock looks like!

All the time there is

All the time there is, is here.
Each moment ticked, exactly, off.
Dead time, never quickening
To the beat of a racing heart.

Each moment ticked exactly off.
Each gives the measure of the rest.
To the beat of a racing heart
Such constraint cannot be borne;

Each gives the measure of the rest
In substance only, not in time.
Such constraint cannot be borne:
Some leap while others murmur.

In substance, only not in time,
Hearts beat together ’gainst the clock.
Some leap while others murmur,
And all the time there is, is there.

Posted in pantoum, poetry, verse | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Ill winds are blowing

Two triolets
Both say much the same thing because I wrote the first and then turned it into the second to fit the character limit for twitter.

1)

Ill winds are blowing
Out of the west
Certainties going
Ill winds are blowing
Cold hatreds sowing
This is the test
Ill winds are blowing
Out of the west

2)

Truth lies bleeding
Cold winds blow
Falsehoods breeding
Truth lies bleeding
Vanity feeding
Hatreds grow
Truth lies bleeding
Cold winds blow

 

Posted in Brexit, Erdogan, May, rant;, triolet, Trump, twitter poems | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Love in folk songs

I’ve been listening to Nic Jones (great man; his set at Towersey a few years ago is one of the highlights of my musical experience) and, well, after an evening in the company of Annachie Gordon and a Bonny Light Horseman, pondering the wisdom of crossing the Clyde Water to the Banks of Fordie, whilst waiting for the Daemon Lover to come along in the company of Master Kilby so we all could sail away to the Lakes of Shillin, I wrote the following:

Love in folk songs: a warning to the inexperienced

In a folk song
Before too long
Love will go wrong
Every time.

Love is woken
Words are spoken
A promise broken
Every time.

There’s but one rule:
She’s a young fool
He is so cruel
Every time.

She’s believing
He’s deceiving
Quickly leaving
Every time.

If not one lover
Wronging the other
It’s his mother
Every time.

Love ends badly
Love ends sadly
Never gladly
Every time.

Posted in Child Ballad, folk music, folk song, love, Music, Nic Jones, verse | 1 Comment

Twitter poems

A few poems, written whilst I was away over New Year. Most were posted first on Twitter (micropoetry is, for me, the best thing about Twitter) and thus written quickly, reflecting the medium.

Curlews

Curlews take flight
Beyond the stone wall
Ghosts in halflight
Silent as nightfall
Slip out of sight
Hardly here at all

Haiku

Sweet the twicefold call
Of curlews rising at dusk
From a western shore

After the sunset
The wind blows out of the north
Cold as last year’s bones

A finger of stone
An arc across the moorland
In the distance rain

machrie-ii

Triolet

A robin sings
Before the dawn
Bright notes take wings
A robin sings
Each ripple rings
With hope reborn
A robin sings
Before the dawn

Posted in haiku, triolet, twitter poems, verse | 8 Comments

An end, maybe a beginning?

I’d like to say everything has sorted itself out, writing-wise, since my last post but I can’t, because it hasn’t. I’m in no part closer to finding the spark missing from my manuscript. Something has changed, however, as a result of a couple of helpful, sensible conversations – thank you, Jane and Colin. I am worrying about the whole thing less and that is, I hope, the beginning of progress. Even though I’m not sure when, or even if, I’ll start writing again, not worrying about not being able to write feels like a burden has been lifted. Not writing now doesn’t change the fact that those books I have written are out in the world.

Anyway, today is the solstice. The winter solstice in these parts, and a grey, wet rainy day it was too. Nominally we get about seven hours of daylight but it was so dreich it never really brightened. It’s still raining. But, from tomorrow, the days will be getting longer.

In life, of course, one is stuck with the weather as it happens. In fiction, one can select it to fit the mood and the need of the book. No need for rain or dull halflight if clean, clear cold seems preferable. Here’s a crisp, dry midwinter’s night from After the Ruin (commercial plug: I see that AtR is being heavily discounted right now on Amazon UK; I’m not sure how long the offer will last). The extract is taken from the turning point of the story, when hoped-for ends turn into unlooked-for beginnings:

Midwinter. The king walked through the wood, snow on the branches, frost on the trees. The darkness parted itself around him, the splinters of frost shining bright as the stars in the sky. He walked in silence through the night and left no mark upon the snow. Tonight, as he walked out of the wild wood into the world, there were no boundaries between a dream and waking.

The king stood between the earth and sky. When he spoke, the world fell quiet to listen. “If you are there, show yourself.” The meadows were full of shapes and shadows. Light and lovely as the falling snow, the liùthion danced around him, existing only at the edge of vision, in the world and out of it. Their dance span and wove its patterns across the meadows as snowflakes span across the sky but the king was the still centre, the fixed point, more solid than any flesh, more real than any dream. The world was ever changing but he endured forever and for always.

His voice was the gentle cold of falling snow. “Come out of the dark.” He held his hand out to a darker shadow beneath the shadows of a bone-bare tree.

The piper stepped from beneath a birken tree, its pale branches hung all about with ice, bleak and beautiful as hope. “Only in borderlands can we meet, between your lands and mine.”

“Are you come to beg an apple?” The words rang out into the night, the clear cold of broken ice skimming across a frozen loch.

“I cannot eat that fruit, beneath this sky or the other.”

The king raised his hand. The music died away to a memory of sweetness and loss, the liùthion were gone; nothing was left to break the emptiness of snow and frost. All that remained was the wind upon the meadows, the soft and silent fall of snow upon the night.

The piper shivered in the silence and the cold, because he was afraid, as he had never before been afraid, even on that longest day when the sun burned fierce and still above him.

The king bowed his head. His cloak was ragged and his feet bare but there were stars tangled in his hair. His voice was the wind rattling the birken tree. “As you desire. I do not take the unwilling. But, if you did not come to eat, why come here at midwinter when I cross the water to walk in the wild wood?”

“You know all the ways of all the men that ever walked beneath the sky. You know why I came to you.”

The piper held out his hands. The king took them in his own, cold hands and turned the palms face up that he might study them.

“Ask and I will answer.” The king’s voice was the snap of twigs upon a winter’s night. “But think before you speak: remember that I make no promises, I offer no hope, I grant no boons and I make no bargains. What I am, I am.”

The piper let out a long breath. His life hung before him, white mist in the black night. He asked, “What is left to me?”

“You live and breathe, you walk beneath the sun and moon.”

“Why can I not come to my rest? The dead are dead. All else that lived to the long day’s evening found peace in Ohmorah. But I? I lost my way, my hope, my name and still it is not enough!”

“For all things there is a price. That is the one you pay, piper from the gates of morning.”

“I saw the rowan die; I saw the sun stand still at noontime, a red moon rising and fiery dancers setting the very wind to flame.” The piper looked up into the king’s pale face but could not meet his gaze and shut his eyes against it. Behind the blackness of closed eyes, he saw a flicker of sunlight across the green leaves of a rowan tree, a fall of golden hair. He heard a well-remembered song, rich and sweet as honeycomb on midsummer’s day. He closed his mind against the memory and cried out, “After fire burned and water drowned, I made a balance this side of the sunset. All that I did that day was necessary.”

The answer came back quick and hard. “Who are you to judge necessity? A balance made along the edge of a sword is no balance at all.”

The piper’s face twisted with anger or regret. “The lives and deaths of those in the waking world are no concern of yours!”

“You came to me to ask your questions, and I have answered. The truth is all I have to offer you.”

“Then there is no hope left to me.”

“You live and breathe, you walk upon the earth. All this is left to you and it must be enough.”

“It is but half a life, walking across the years towards an unkind death.”

“Yours is the only hand that shaped your fate.” The king bent his head to study the hands he still held within his own. “You chose, and know the penalty of choice.”

The piper snatched back his hands. He was never good to look upon but now he wore the face of a monster: hate sat on his brow and shame upon his cheek. He cried out, his anger spilling like steam from a boiling pot, “Allodola found peace, the Liùthion found love and Allocco is dead! I would trade all my freedom and my choices for any of these three.”

The king said only, “Yet, even now, you seek to shape the future to one of your own choosing.” His face was quiet and still, free from anger, and from love.

The piper bowed his head, his anger gone, his sorrow left to him. He thought and he remembered, and he said, “An I do not, all I have done before I did in vain. One choice leads on to others, and there never is an end.”

“Death is the end of all things beneath your sky, piper from the gates of morning.” The king turned away and his ragged cloak swung around him on the wind of the world and the wind not of the world. “Enough and more than enough of words. I am to my dancing and all who choose may join me.”

He spread wide his hands. The sky around him was jewelled with starlight; the wind and the land and the empty air filled again with music and shadows. He danced and the kindred of the borderlands danced with him in the long night, and there were no boundaries between a dream and waking.

The piper watched, and let old memories rise through the years to the surface of his mind. Here and now, he knew how much he had feared and how greatly he had failed. Above his head, the winter trees, white and clean as last year’s bones, stretched out their branches to the stars. A long, long while passed by before he turned away, limping back into the shadows towards the company of men.

Posted in After the Ruin, fantasy novel, Hadley Rille Books, Harriet Goodchild author, novel, personal opinion, thoughts | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Writer, eclipsed.

I started this villanelle ages back – so long back I can’t quite recall when, except that it was the last time there was a partial lunar eclipse visible in this part of the world. That’s pretty clear from the subject matter. I got stuck, abandoned it, found the fragment recently and forced it to a finish.

The moon was full tonight.
As it rose above the hill,
The shadow ate its light.

We crooked our fingers tight
To guard against ill-will.
The moon was full tonight,

Our way lay, plain in sight,
An easy path, until
The shadow ate its light

’Twixt dog and wolf. A bite
Consumed and ate its fill.
The moon was full tonight;

As fear faint hearts can blight,
As hate bright hopes can kill,
The shadow ate its light.

No mercy for our plight,
No succour, no goodwill.
The moon was full tonight.
The shadow ate its light.

I know I’ve not written anything here lately. Here, or anywhere else. Truth is, I’m blocked. Blocked for new writing, blocked for revision (my WIP is in pieces and I don’t know how to put them together again; as I pulled on one thread, the whole unravelled, if you’ll pardon the mixing of metaphors.), blocked for poetry, blocked on trying to promote the books I’ve written.

Oh, I’ve tried many of the obvious tricks for unblocking writing – prompts, free association, retelling favourite stories, describing a person, place or thing – but so far they’ve got me nowhere. Writers write, they say. Right now, I can’t. I can, it seems, write sentences, even scenes, but not produce a coherent story with a beginning, middle and end. It’s exceedingly frustrating. If I have an idea, it dries up in the space between thought and page/screen. Nothing lasts. Even if I’m only writing to please myself, the stuff I produce doesn’t please me and ends up being abandoned, like the moon villanelle.

Well, I suppose that got finished eventually. Maybe there’s hope for poor Ardùvai and all his friends and enemies yet. Cross your fingers.

Posted in personal opinion, rant;, thoughts, verse, villanelle, work in progress | Tagged , | 10 Comments

Prologues revisited:This is what will happen

I’m in the throes of revision of a manuscript that will be the third, and final, book in the sequence set in and around the Later Lands. The story is pretty well worked out and now I’m now thinking about structure and patterns. As I’ve said previously, I like prologues and, to fit in with its predecessors, I’d like this book to have a prologue. Thing is, as the prologues of After the Ruin and The Crooked Path were set in the past and present, respectively, this one needs to be set in the future (hence, This is what will happen).

That offers a problem: a prologue is set in the future will almost certainly give a glimpse into how my story unfolds, and people can be very sensitive about spoilers. I’m not myself, by the way. I’m not going to tell you who killed Roger Ackroyd but most of the time I reckon it’s not what happens that matters, but how and why it happens. If all the merit in a book is lost because one knows a twist or ending in advance I think it a pretty one-dimensional book. I’ve reread The Murder of Roger Ackroyd several times, not because I forget whodunit but because I enjoy its cleverness and sleight of hand. Likewise, I came to A Song of Ice and Fire late enough to be aware of most of the major plot turns, but the detail of how the story reached those points was interesting enough in its own right to keep me reading. But readers’ opinions on these matters differ, and sufficient people do care for me to be wary. The solution, I think, is to set this prologue far enough beyond the end of the story that it gives very little away as to the what, and nothing at all about the how and the why.

If you should happen to be someone who cares about spoilers, by the way, don’t worry. The text below is something I wrote to amuse myself as a distraction from revision. Whilst it’s a future, it’s almost certainly not the future, and though it’s a prologue, it’s almost certainly not the prologue. The fun of writing – and revising – is that these things are not set in stone until a very late point in the process. Between now and then, almost anything could happen.

Twilight in Ittachar, a day not long past midsummer. The cool blue of a summer’s evening thickens into dusk in the hollows of the hills, though the western sky above the sea is still wreathed with the fading glory of the sunset. Oystercatchers call, one to another, as they probe for mussels ’twixt rocks and weed. A dog seal hauls itself ashore and rests at the water’s edge, its scarred flanks lapped by the waves of the retreating tide. The birds, no doubt, mark its appearance but a seal is of no concern to them. They are more wary of the boy walking the shore. A little less than a man, this bright-haired boy, a little more than a child, gangling and awkward in his newfound length of limb but filled with the promise of strength to come. He stoops now and then to pick up little things that catch his fancy: a shell, a curl of driftwood, a pebble round and white as the full moon. A stranger, seeing his homespun shirt and leather trousers, his short cloak of unwashed wool, would mark him as a fisherman’s son. At the second sight, a stranger with a careful eye might pick out the ring on his right hand.

The seal stirs with a shiver and a shudder. An oystercatcher whistles a warning and all the birds lift as one, pied wings beating away across the halflit water, as a man rises to his feet at the tideline and shakes saltwater from his hair. He flings up an arm in answer to the boy’s wave, then strides up the shore with a grey seal’s skin draped across his arm and a crunch of shingle ’neath his bare feet.

At a hawthorn bush at the head of the beach, he cocks his head towards the land. ‘If you are there, show yourself.’

A shadow detaches itself from the gloaming and clots into a man. He is garbed as a fisherman, with a fisherman’s wooden charm hanging round his neck. His black hair is touched with silver and his black eyes are filled with laughter.

‘I was sure this time I’d catch you by surprise.’

‘You?’ An amused snort. ‘You walk so loud across the lea you might as well beat on a drum and shout aloud, I’m here!

The seal scrabbles beneath the thorn, turning stones aside to find a shirt and breeks and trousers, heavy socks and a pair of seaboots. He folds the sealskin in their place and piles the stones atop it. Dressed, he calls out, ‘Lad, your father’s back.’

The boy runs towards them, his pockets rattling with his treasures. ‘What did he say?’

‘What did who say?’ The fisherman lets his son’s impatience beat against him like a fluttering bird. ‘Can you mean the potter?’

‘Ach, don’t tease him,’ says the seal. ‘Of course he means the potter.’

‘Be easy, lad.’ A quick smile conjures another from the boy. ‘He’ll take you on as ’prentice. If you’re certain. You’re sure you wouldn’t rather wait a year and join the whalemen?’

The boy shakes his head, his answer shining in his eyes. The seal pulls him into a hug, ruffling his pale hair as if he were yet a child and not a great lad taller than himself. ‘That’s settled, then. It’s a good trade, if you’ve a knack for it.’

‘Neither a ship nor a sword,’ his father mutters, low enough for only a seal to hear, if that seal be standing very close, ‘but I kept my promise all the same.’

The seal glances at him, quick and hard, looking for regret, perhaps, or bitterness. Seeing neither, he lets the boy squirm free and says, ‘I watched the mercatship come in. What news from the west?’

‘No news at all, unless you count a song out of the queen’s hall in Lyikené. I had it from the fat mercatman as we sat together in the alehouse.’ The fisherman whistles a jaunty tune, breaks off his whistling to say, ‘Mostly it’s about the fall of the Black Rocks. Should be to your taste.’

‘Far more than that lament you had of him last year.’

‘Brought tears to my eyes, that one did, first time I heard it.’

‘Aye, so I recall. Could scarce keep a straight face myself.’

The boy looks from one to the other, reading the expression on their faces, their shared ease born of long familiarity. His face curves into a sly, sweet smile. His voice has broken in the twelvemonth since he learnt the song and its tune no longer soars into the tall sky, like a gull into high sunlight, but each note still chimes clear and true. Above the hills, the stars prick into life, by one, by two and three.

The seal grins and hums along to the boy’s lament for a young king, drowned in the flower of his youth through his nightwatch’s treachery. The fisherman sighs, a man sorely tried by the fools about him, though the glint in his black eyes threatens only laughter. After a half-dozen verses, he snaps his fingers in his son’s face. ‘Enough of that dirge. Sing something to warm the blood.’

The boy obliges, and the men take up the chorus. Then, together, they walk up the path towards the village, sad stories of the death of kings driven from their minds by a song of vengeance and of glory.

And far away, the other side of time, the quiet queen stands in the shadows of the apple tree. Her cloak is tattered and her feet are bare but there are stars tangled in her hair. About her and around her, the dancers of the borderlands whirl and swirl to the music of the stars and sea, singing the song of the wind upon the water. Longtimes she watches, knowing all things of all men, the living and the dead, until the three of them, the fisherman, the seal, the boy, reach the low, thatched cot and step inside out of the night, and close the door behind them.

Did this night happen? Not yet, perhaps not ever. There is as yet no fisherman, no half-grown boy to be apprenticed to a potter, no queen across the water. The future is a tale cannot be written, not even on the air or in running water. It lies forever out of reach, less tangible even than a dream. But, as stories link together, like beads upon a chain, like dancers joining hands to form the figures of a dance, the future is shaped by the present and the past, and so – if the world is kind and hearts are strong – this eventide in Ittachar is what will happen.

Posted in fantasy novel, Harriet Goodchild author, novel, selkie, work in progress | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment