Monday, 10 September 2012

Free Critique: something every writer needs


If you're a writer, you'll have friends and family to give you feedback, but you know that's not enough. Not nearly enough.

I’m currently in the drafting stages of my first novel, The Shadow Fabric, a story of sin, shadows, and the re-animated dead. My wife was the first to read it, and she of course gave me feedback as a reader. She was – and always is – constructively critical, and she tells the truth. But as a demanding writer, I need more than that. All of us, as aspiring writers, need more than just biased thumbs-up.

I guess it'll always be your spouse to read one of the first drafts (it used to be my dad, but he’s now my secondary reader). Next it would be your friends, right? Your best-mate, and possibly a few others? That’s still not enough, and as writers we need someone to rip our work apart; to pull away the skin and tear off the muscle, to strip it down to the skeleton.


I subscribe to the Writing Magazine, which is a must for any aspiring writer, and a regular feature is ‘Under the Microscope’ where each month a reader’s work is scrutinised. Back in May, I submitted the first 300 words of my novel (pretty much the entire prologue) in the hope of receiving professional feedback without having to pay for it.

A few days ago the October issue of the Writing Magazine shot through my letterbox, and inside were my 300 words put under their microscope… and so I was lucky enough to have my prologue critiqued by Julia Bell, an author and a Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at Birkbeck University of London.

Those words of mine were from a fourth draft, and at the time of my submission I knew there would be further revisions (there have since been seven more). As each draft went by, I found it more and more difficult to read it objectively, proving that over those few months I’d become too close to my project. And I knew it.

So, there was my free critique, and having it to hand has re-energised me. When I began writing the novel I couldn’t decide whether to write it in first or third person, and finally I settled on first. Certainly it was the only way in which the story could be told, yet I guess my indecision came across in the prologue. Julia pointed out the jarring transition between action and first person POV (point of view), and I realised this was what had been bothering me all along.

It seems the tone of the story is wrong, and now knowing this I must focus my next draft on the main character’s viewpoint; I need to deepen his shadows if I’m to make the novel truly work.

There’s something else Julia brought to my attention, and I know I’ve been guilty of it ever since I started writing short stories (not just my novel): over-description and being keyboard-happy with adjectives. A few other things were mentioned, in particular some mixed metaphors, but I’d already eliminated these in subsequent drafts.

Throughout the process of writing my novel I’ve had two pieces of advice echoing in my head.  Both are from Stephen King’s On Writing - A memoir of the craft:

“2nd draft = 1st draft – 10%”

&

“The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”

Each draft of TheShadow Fabric has been tightened, and I’ve dropped the total word count by around 5% since the first, plus I've kept in mind not to use too many adverbs. Well, I need to twist the screws even tighter!

There is one other thing I need to do, and I admit I’ve been lazy here: analyse every sentence and every word, to be certain all is vital to the plot, to the character, and to each scene itself. When it comes to the meaning of each sentence, Julia says, “Is it accurately conveying what you see in your mind’s eye?”

My thanks go to Julia for reminding me of where I am, and why I’m here. I need to tighten the clamp, and I’ve known it all along. So here I go…





Author photo (c)Christopher Shoebridge
Mark Cassell lives in a rural part of the UK with his wife and a number of animals. He often dreams of dystopian futures, peculiar creatures, and flitting shadows. Primarily a horror writer, his steampunk, fantasy, and SF stories have featured in several anthologies and ezines.

His debut novel, The Shadow Fabric, is a supernatural story and is available from Amazon.


Twitter: @Mark_Cassell Facebook: www.facebook.com/AuthorMarkCassell

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Without knowledge, there is only ignorance

Imagine a world without literature, where TV is responsible for the numbing of intellect and curiosity; where history is a thing of the past, and free-thought is prohibited. Imagine a world without books… a gloomy prospect, right? I'm not going into one about how e-readers are ruining our appreciation of the printed book – that's not what today's blog update is about – I'm talking about a dystopian future where books are burned. And if you're caught in possession of such illegal artifacts then your home is torched and you're arrested.


Give me a book and I’m happy, turn on the TV and it has quite the opposite effect. My wife and I don’t own a licence, but we do have a TV and so watch what we want, when we want. We rent our movies from LoveFilm, and we’re happy to be entertained by various box-sets of seasons if we choose to buy them, and so committing just a short time to viewing – not taking up the whole evening, is my point, where we'd inevitably share conversation from the corner of our mouths, without once looking at each other. Both of us are keen-readers, always with a book to hand… I guess that’s why I’ve written one of my own (The Shadow Fabric).

My dreams are often a place of dystopia, of an apocalyptic mess in which I find myself, rucksack in hand, wandering desolate wastelands, and battling adversaries such as winged-beasts and Sean Bean. All fuel for my fiction, certainly – and don’t ask me why I’ve often dreamed of Mr Bean… Wait, I meant Sean Bean, not Rowan Atkinson’s amusing character.

Generally of speculative fiction, a dystopia is best described as a society characterised by misery, squalor, oppression and overcrowding; containing themes of social breakdown, political strangle-holds and environmental ruin.

I bring this up because a few days ago I finished a novel, set it aside and thought, Wow, that was amazing. It was Ray Bradbury’s dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451 (the title, incidentally, means the temperature at which book-paper catches fire and burns). Published in 1953, the story portrays a future where ignorance has prevailed, where knowledge is forbidden… and where firemen do the exact opposite to which they do now: it is the fireman’s duty to burn knowledge – indeed, actually burn books – to promote ignorance, whereby equalising population and sustaining a social ‘sameness’.

Yeah, messed up, certainly. Don’t worry, I’ll not reveal any spoilers if you wish to go out there and buy it, but let me give you an image: a TV room, and not one containing your 59 million-inch flat-screen with all your furniture pointed at it, but a room of screened walls, floor to ceiling of interactive monitors. Known as a parlour, this room entirely surrounds you in the soaps, the reality shows and shopping channels... and they talk to you, personally, by way of customer recognition. A room you'll never want to leave, a room far removed from the one featuring your modest book collection or indeed the traditional library.

People find it odd that we don’t have a TV licence, often asking what we do instead… Really? I think, is it really that amazing I choose not to find friendship in the TV?

Marilyn Manson once said ‘God is in the TV’, and I wonder if he has a point.


I'll end with an extract from the book in question, Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451:

‘Montag turned and looked at his wife, who sat in the middle of the parlour talking to an announcer, who in turn was talking to her. ‘Mrs Montag,’ he was saying. This, that and the other. ‘Mrs Montag–’ Something else and still another. The converter attachment, which had cost them one hundred dollars, automatically supplied her name whenever the announcer addressed his anonymous audience, leaving a blank where the proper syllables could be filled in. A special spot-wavex-scrambler also caused his televised image, in the area immediately about his lips, to mouth the vowels and consonants beautifully. He was a friend, no doubt of it, a good friend.’




Author photo (c)Christopher Shoebridge
Mark Cassell lives in a rural part of the UK with his wife and a number of animals. He often dreams of dystopian futures, peculiar creatures, and flitting shadows. Primarily a horror writer, his steampunk, fantasy, and SF stories have featured in several anthologies and ezines.

His debut novel, The Shadow Fabric, is a supernatural story and is available from Amazon.


Twitter: @Mark_Cassell Facebook: www.facebook.com/AuthorMarkCassell

Saturday, 1 September 2012

Osgathorpe: The Village You'll Never Leave

Perhaps the village of Osgathorpe, as if possessing some kind of consciousness, tuned in to my ignorance of its pronunciation and held us tight (in my Southern accent I insisted on calling it Ogglesthorpe). There is, however, another possibility: the local ghost, known as ‘The White Lady’. The area, and in particular a neighbouring ruin, is one of the most haunted locations in Leicestershire – but we didn’t know that at the time. Nor did we know the roads…

At one o’clock in the morning, and with no other cars on the road, my wife and I headed back from my cousin’s wedding – the echoes of Metallica’s Enter Sandman ringing through my head. Off to Never-Neverland indeed.

The weirdness began when we took to cutting through Osgathorpe, this being the supposedly direct route into Thringstone and on to Whitwick where my Grandparents live (and where our cosy bed lay). However, failing to find the A512, we somehow circled the village of Osgathorpe, and came back down a familiar road, running parallel with a stone wall. It was as if someone had picked up the car and pointed us in the other direction.

Puzzled, we pulled over and checked my granddad’s map: our situation didn’t make much sense, we’d been heading the right direction. So, off we went again… and again, after a few minutes, there we were, back along the very same road; the very same wall next to us.  Again and again, zig-zagging and looping the village; back once more to that road. That wall.  Even after another couple of stops – lights on and map-scrutiny – we kept returning to the same stone wall on the edge of a junction, that same road stretching out before us.

I’ve always taken pride in my map-reading abilities, and certainly never been one for sat-nav (having heard all sorts of negative things about the ridiculous routes they take you), but this was the only time I thought maybe they weren’t such a bad thing. Perhaps where the White Lady hovers on the threshold between our world and the next, such malevolence would toy with technology and still have us going round and round and round and…

As if the darkness teased us with a glimpse, there we saw the ruins of Grace Dieu Priory. A sleek shadow on the edge of Cademan Wood, the structure offered up a pale haze in the darkness… and there was our road. The A512, finally… after almost half an hour’s search.

It was lucky we were both laughing at the situation – fear didn’t come into it. Certainly not at the time, as it wasn’t until the morning and speaking with my aunty that we learnt of the White Lady.

Sadly there seems to be little history behind this apparition, only that she is known to drift across the A512. Famously reported in 1954 by a bus driver, who said he’d stopped to pick up a woman waiting in the shelter opposite the ruins. As his doors opened she was no longer there. The last actual sighting was by a police officer in 1961.

I’ve always had the saying ‘Seeing is believing’, and neither of us actually saw anything and, quite honestly, who knows? Was it the White Lady, casting a veil of darkness over our only exit in an attempt to keep us in the village? Had we not found our route, would she have managed to ensnare us metaphysically, restraining us with other-worldly shackles?

Or was it us, riding on the joys of a fine day, not focusing on the journey and simply being idiots?





Author photo (c)Christopher Shoebridge
Mark Cassell lives in a rural part of the UK with his wife and a number of animals. He often dreams of dystopian futures, peculiar creatures, and flitting shadows. Primarily a horror writer, his steampunk, fantasy, and SF stories have featured in several anthologies and ezines.

His debut novel, The Shadow Fabric, is a supernatural story and is available from Amazon.


Twitter: @Mark_Cassell Facebook: www.facebook.com/AuthorMarkCassell