A Reader of History – Douglas Burcham

Douglas Burcham found A Writer of History last summer and ever since has been offering suggestions and wonderful encouragement as I published Unravelled and then conducted my survey. Douglas has also been going through the self-publishing cycle. Written in collaboration with his fantasy twin brother Alexander (a frequent commenter on my blog) and guest writers from writing groups, his book of short stories Ywnwab! came out last September.

Douglas reads and writes with the Allrighters. This post appears on his web site www.allrighters.co.uk and blog http://allrightersreading.blogspot.co.uk/.

Many thanks for all your support, Douglas!

A Reader of History

After I started writing fiction in June 2010, I found a strong recommendation on a web site to read Stephen King’s On Writing. The book justifies the referral and I took King’s advice about reading widely, not to plagiarise but to absorb the atmosphere and ways of storytelling. Since 2010 I have tried to work through at least a book a week thereby reading ten times as many words as I write each year. Even then I know I am hardly scratching the surface of the millions of fiction books available.

In a Christmas-time discussion with my first professional editor, we talked about what might form good advice to new and old writers, as we are both putting together short books on the subject: his from many years of writing and publishing experience and mine a new writer’s petulant view from my last 43 months, before I become conditioned into the entrenched thinking of the established literary world.

I contend the three most important elements of a good book are similar to property purchases with the location, location, location mantra becoming … story, story, story. A good story badly told is, in my view, better than a bad story perfectly told – showing not telling and the rest of the technical ways in vogue. Reading, in my view, gives a writer the strongest clues about what makes a book which the world may want to read. I accept all jokes need to be told well to succeed … if only I could.

Having nearly completed my target of writing a million draft words in three years, set in July 2010, I am about to set off in 2014 on a long self-edit and restructuring of my past writing, based on the magical elements and ways used in books I like reading.

Since 2010 I do not think my plotting and story creation have improved, but with all the actual writing, and particularly the added reading, I believe I am in a much better position to produce books readers may want to read.

Over Christmas I have also taken a view of my reading over the last three and a half years. I realise my memories of books read have been crowded out by history titles. Because of this I feel this post as A Reader of History is an appropriate flip side to Mary’s awriterofhistory blog.

There are so many books to read and, given the wide choice, this has made me a fickle, demanding, critical and sometimes cynical and disloyal reader. Why do I read?

  • For enjoyment of all books, except those with grim content.
  • Entertainment mostly in quick 24 hour easy read thrillers, the snacks of reading.
  • For interest and education books with a good technical or historic background in the last century, often banquets of reading.

As I write this post my instant reading memories of 2013 out of sixty or so books I ploughed through are three factual books.

  • one medical Why Bipolar? By Declan Henry,
  • another No Easy Day about a killing or assassination (you can choose which)
  • a biography of Bernie Ecclestone, a self-made man.

The AllrightersOED – History. – The branch of knowledge which deals with human events. The formal record or study of past events, especially human affairs.

Based on this definition, a surprise for me – all these factual books slip onto my bookshelf as A Reader of History. I found the characters and their modern history all interesting and educational.

These memories are followed by five fiction titles I regard as serious fiction, each a banquet of reading, all with an historical background in the last century.

Never Forget – Angela Petch

In this book I felt very close in my own memories with the main female lead character telling the story of her brothers’ receiving the family inheritance on their mother’s death and her being left with a box of old letters in Italian and a collection of photos. I found myself on her shoulder, being taken back to Italy under German occupation and two romances, one in wartime and another in the present.

The main lesson to me as a writer was the intimacy Angela created between me as the reader and the main character in her telling of her story.

I read this to the end on Kindle, always a stern test of a book for me as I probably stop reading more Kindle books than others, because I do not really like electronic reading and its detrimental effect on my tired old eyes. A hard cover, large print book of about 500 pages is my ideal read.

Unravelled – M.K. Tod

I found the awriterofhistory blog and this book through a post by Mary on Mick Rooney’s Independent Publishing Magazine web site about marketing books. I am not really into families and romance and again I read the book on my Kindle, so reaching the end gives great credit to the book. The WW1 information about signals, details of the Canadian War Memorial – including the Mother Canada figure and the excellent crafting of the uncertainty of the times of not knowing the result of WW2 and the pressure on family members created by service were all memorable. The book links a family and WW1 to WW2. I look forward to Lies told in Silence … a title to raise reader’s hopes of a good read.

I prefer to read non fiction books about the sharp end of war and have previously shied away from fiction, apart from Birdsong – Sebastian Faulks, about WW1. Unravelled awakened my interest in more war fiction books, including my current read The Yellow Birds, which although fiction reads as a grim autobiography. From the incidental closeness of these two titles a stray thought occurs to me about birds and war. 

Turning Point – Calvin Hedley – To be published in 2014.

I had the good fortune to read this draft book of c100,000 words as an advance reader able to comment on the content of the book in substance and detail. I read the book twice. The action takes place in 1940 and 1982 and is built around a pivotal moment in WW2, involving secrets, aircraft, Hitler and Churchill. I believe it has the makings of a good film as well as a book. Calvin has helped me with my own writing, especially with my awful grammar and punctuation. His achievement is even greater because he is blind.

The Garden of Evening Mists – Tan Twan Ing

My wife had been urged to read this book by friends and when it turned up in our house from the library, I started to read the first few pages and did not stop until completion the following day, a short sub-loan. I usually take time reading serious fiction, but this demanded my undivided attention. The ingredients were good. Malaya in the 1940s at the time of the Communist insurgency, with flashbacks to Japanese occupation, and near the end a surprise technical analysis of something seen in every day life.

To me the key to my pleasure reading this book centred on the delightful way the often horrific story was told and the two timeframes, current and flashbacks to the past. I will have to read it again.

Winter – Len Deighton

He chose a huge canvas from before 1900 to 1945 on which to paint twentieth-century history and a family story. Several sub plots, so his story kept me reading. Of necessity a slow read, stopping for breath and reflection on descriptions of everyday events taking precedence over horror, the characters seemingly unfeeling. An unsatisfactory ending to me and at the time I could not think of a better one! I can now. One knew in advance the end of the story of Hitler and the Third Reich but not the fate of all the characters. The story of events in Germany put another slant on the history of WW2 for me and provided many new insights. I will have to read it again.

All sound like wonderful novels, Douglas. I’m honoured that you chose to include Unravelled and look forward to our ongoing dialogue as we both strive to become better writers! I applaud the concept of A Reader of History.

Take it slow, take it fast

Several days ago, a very kind literary agent offered feedback on two fifty page snippets of my writing. While he had some positive comments, when asked more directly, he said that my writing “does not have the pace and energy to capture the enthusiasm of this reader”. Good to know.

Being a methodical woman, I set out to examine the notion of pacing – I should disclose that I had already adjusted the pace of one of these novels in order to improve its opening chapters. I started the novel differently, cut out several chapters and tightened the language – or so I thought. Do I need to do more?

Let’s begin with a definition of pacing.

  • Pacing is the measurement of how quickly you go from point A to point B. (Noah Lukeman, The First Five Pages)
  • Pacing is word count. Minimum word count. (Steven Taylor Goldsberry, The Writer’s Book of Wisdom)
  • Pacing is the rhythm of the novel, of the chapters and scenes and paragraphs and sentences … and the speed at which novel events occur and unfold. (Dr. Vicki Hinze)
  • Pace is the tempo at which a scene moves. The pace varies within a novel, depending on the emotion an author wants the reader to experience at any given time. (Marilyn R Henderson, The Fine Art of Pace – Making Every Scene in Your Novel Count)
  • Pacing, as it applies to fiction, could be described as the manipulation of time. (Gerry Visco, Techniques to Establish Pacing)
  • Pacing is the tempo of the story, the speed at which information is provided and the dynamics of the rising tension. (Gail Gaymer Martin, Pacing – Too Fast or Too Slow)

Other writers talk about the subtlety and complexity of pacing, describing the difficulty an author has stepping back from his or her work to objectively look at overall pace in the context of conflict, tension, the reader’s emotional experience, reader fatigue and reader confusion. At times, a slower pace is necessary; at other times, a slow pace creates boredom.

Here’s a list I compiled of ways to increase and decrease pace:

Increase Pace Slow Pace
Strive for brevity; Use lean writing with fewer adjectives and adverbs Description, particularly ones that are steeped in sensory input and rich in texture and sound (DVH)
Zoom in – eg: beads of sweat on a face Zoom out, describe a wide panorama
Keep the action rolling; include lots of action Reduce the psychological intensity
Trim physical detail/description Slow the pace in order to place emphasis on something
Avoid analysis, rumination Slow the pace after a dramatic, active scene
Increase narrative tension by raising the stakes. Resolve some of the conflict
Create white space on the page Slow the pace to expand emotional impact – a love scene or an intense situation
Reduce telling and description; replace with dramatization Note specific details that seem larger than life
Dialogue speeds pace, gives illusion of action, particular abrupt, pointed dialogue Long blocks of narration slows the pace
Increase the conflict Long flowing sentences; soft sounding verbs
Edit out insignificant actions Layering details, one upon another
Short, snappy sentences and paragraphs; towards the novel’s end, short chapters with more drama More relaxed dialogue
Cut scene short at a dramatic moment Flashbacks and backstory; remember that readers are interested in what’s going to happen not what has happened (SK)
Crisp, sharp verbs
Use sentence fragments
Switch back and forth between POV
Check each scene for a crisis situation

What will I do now?

Armed with these ideas, I’m going to crawl through one of my manuscripts noting slow, medium and fast paced areas then block these out against my chapter/scene outline. Perhaps I will have a eureka moment.

If anyone has other advice, please let me know.

By the way: SK means the suggestion comes from Steven King’s book On Writing; DVH indicates an idea from Dr. Vicki Hinze’s article on Pacing.