Dread On The Page

There’s a difference between fear and dread—it’s subtle—but, as writers, we should use dread to create an atmosphere of unease…a pervasive foreshadowing that coats our characters.

To me, dread implies fearful expectation, or anticipation, whereas fear is a response to a threat that’s appeared.

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These days in Thriller and Crime writing and film adaptations, there’s too much instant gratification—BOOM!—big explosions, courtesy of CGI that the hero is immune to, calmly walking away from them, as if shock waves, heat and debris don’t exist. If our hero is injured, it’s usually a designer cut on his cheek, that won’t leave a scar. No one ever receives a wound that makes him weak and insecure and vulnerable…which could crank up the tension, rather than detract from their powers.

I’ve just finished reading Michelle Paver’s Wakenhyrst, in which she created a cumulative sense of dread from seemingly unconnected incidents, skilfully using all of the senses, including smell and touch.

Nice to come across a hardback book so well-designed with the use of colophons depicting reeds, ivy leaves, a magpie, carved devil heads, bulrushes and leafy vegetation to mark chapter and section breaks. I was delighted to see an eel slither onto the corner of page 165 out to make mischief. Good too, that there’s a red ribbon bookmark attached to the spine. Such features make a book feel special, that it’s worth the asking price.

The dread-full atmosphere of Wakenhyrst put me in mind of the Fantasy and Ghost stories penned by M.R. James in which he weaved a creepy atmosphere, where nothing was quite what it seemed to be, leading to a satisfying crescendo.

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Several of these tales were adapted by the BBC, in a strand of short films under the banner A Ghost Story For Christmas. Shown from 1971-1978, with a one-off in 2005, they were eagerly anticipated by viewers and much-discussed afterwards.

I vividly recall several scenes, including one from the first shown, The Stalls of Barchester, based on M.R. James story The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral, in which a scholar is haunted by a ghostly cat, as he investigates the mysterious death of his predecessor. What made me jump, was a scene where the doomed protagonist is sitting in the darkened cathedral, with only a candle for illumination, nervous of an unseen cat yowling nearby, grasping the arm of his chair for reassurance—which suddenly turns from wood into black cat fur!

In my own writing, I try to create a sense of dread in my Cornish Detective series, sometimes by letting the reader know things that the coppers don’t, meaning they blunder into dangerous situations. Judging how well I’ve made the reader uneasy, is as tricky as deciding how funny a listener will find a joke I’m telling.

Books I’ve enjoyed for the way that the author instils apprehension, include Willliam Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist, Susan Hill’s The Woman In Black and Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men

How about you?

Are your stories tinged with dread?

Which authors make you afraid to turn the page?

Illustration by James McBryde for M. R. James’s story ‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’

The Purgatory of Submission

This heartfelt article describes what many of us know is involved in querying literary agents.

If you’re just starting out as a writer, yet to jump through an agent’s submission hoop, then what Glen Cadigan describes will give you a good idea of what to expect when you’ve completed your precious story.

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I just received my 40th ‘No’ from 88 queries made in February, which brings my total of rejections up to 677 since 2013. I’m not upset by this, forging ahead with my plans to return to self-publishing, which, at the moment means adding posts to my Paul Pens blog in anticipation of it going live. To me, rejections are like flies splattering themselves on my windscreen as I drive onwards.

I found Glen Cadigan’s article via a link on the excellent Writers’ Services newsletter, which is worth subscribing to, that also featured an article from Jane Friedman who does a question and answer session with two literary agents, comparing and contrasting what they say with the reality that Glen Cadigan describes.

Before I started reading it, I predicted that both agents would stress the importance of good quality writing, which is what they always say, and that I’ve described here in an old post as the biggest fallacy about publishing.

The idea that your manuscript will rise to the top of the slush pile, glowing like an irresistible gold ingot because it’s well-written is nonsense. It certainly helps, for writing has to be coherent, at the very least, but from seeing what does get published to become best-selling, I reckon that it’s the concept of a story, something unusual, intriguing and exciting that can be marketed, which motivates agents and publishers to get behind a book.

Adorably Large Animals!

I previously posted about how animals can be symbolic.

But, quite how these adorably large animals could be used, outside of Fantasy or Science Fiction, I’m not sure….

Monokubo: Fantasy Digital Paintings. (scroll to the second page)

Good fun, though, and if you love the artist’s inspiration—Studio Ghibli, who made My Neighbour, Totoro—then, you’ll be captivated by the idea of having a giant creature as a companion.

It may be good fun, but I wouldn’t want to clean out the cat’s litter tray!

Eggcorns!

This article was in the Curiosity.com newsletter today, about eggcorns—which are words or phrases that are misheard or wrongly remembered and regurgitated in a slightly different form—which then enters usage. This could be one way in which language evolves.

I’ve heard number 5) Bad wrap (bad rap) said as “bad rep”…as in bad reputation.

One phrase not on the list, that I don’t know which came first, is Dull as ditchwater or Dull as dishwater. I grew up saying the former, but the washing-up option is more common nowadays.

Mishearing song lyrics or poetry leads to what are known as Mondegreens.

For a while, I thought that Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits was singing “Money for nothing and your cheques for free,” in their song Money For Nothing, rather than the actual lyric “your chicks for free.” Some listeners thought he was muttering “your chips for free.”

A close relative is a Malapropism, which can be humorous.

Can you think of any other examples?

Old School Writing Tools

This article suggests that writing in longhand or by typewriter is a more stimulating method of creating a story than skating the surface of a soft-touch computer keyboard.

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That there may be ‘hidden efficiency’ in pen, pencil and typewriter ribbon is intriguing. I agree that I remember information better if I’ve written it down, which is partly why I jot ideas onto scraps of card that are dotted around my laptop’s cooling cradle. I’ve got hundreds of documents stored in scores of folders on my desktop, which I’m sometimes glad to find while looking for something else, for I’d forgotten that I’d already done that bit of research!

I’ve written a few poems in longhand, but never anything in prose. I love relying on my laptop, which I also use to aid my concentration by playing music as I write. I even defy the common advice of not having an internet connection while I write, for sometimes it’s best for me to get a fact right at that moment, rather than doing it later when editing, as it will affect what I write next. I’m very focused, checking just that one fact and not wandering off to surf the web.

What about you?

Do you do everything on a computer?

Or by longhand or typewriter, afterwards producing a computer file?

Word Games

An advertisement for a new word game called One Up! caught my eye.

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I’ve played many word puzzles, one of the first being the paper and pencil game of Hangman.

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There are many, many word games for playing at home and watching on television.

One of the best-known televised games is Countdown, whose format has been sold worldwide:

Scrabble, with its many variants, has been around since 1938—rumours that it precipitated WW2 are probably untrue—but its interminable nature rivals Monopoly, which tries the patience. I’ve known several Scrabble bores who insisted on finishing the game, sitting up until the early hours of the morning. One had a gold-plated version whose glistening board and engraved letter tiles were difficult to read without tilting one’s head, making it tricky to remember which letters were in play.

Magnetic letter or word tiles to attach to fridge and freezer doors are a diverting way of having fun and leaving messages, though slamming the door is inadvisable, as stepping on a tile in bare feet is unpleasant, though not as painful as a Lego brick.

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I’ve gone through phases of doing crosswords, never being addicted to them. I prefer puzzles based on general knowledge, as the satisfaction gained from working out cryptic clues escapes me. It’s been said, that doing crosswords is a good way of warding off dementia.

But a 2018 report in the British Medical Journal denied this was so.

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I think that I’ll stick to my own word game, which is best played in bed as a way of hypnotising yourself or a partner to fall asleep. Using the alphabet, name a dog breed beginning with ‘A’ and so on—or a country or your favourite forename or a car or food…whatever you fancy. Take it in turns with a partner. You may well find that they and you go to sleep at the same letter each night.

Are you a crossword addict?

Do you have a favourite or hated board game?

How about word games you’ve invented?

Selling Out—Product Placement

This article in Vox.com reveals some startling examples of product placement by authors and screenwriters:

When a writer signs a contract agreeing to mention a company or product a certain number of times in their story, then the book is really an extended commercial…more so, if the company’s name is part of the title, as in Fay Weldon’s The Bulgari Connection.

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Although a fashion blogger turned novelist, called Riley Costello, is attempting to patent the term ‘shopfiction’, it seems that the notion of promoting product names in books has declined in use, largely because books are seen to be less influential these days.

Setting a story in the world of fashion or music, come to that, it would be impossible not to name names, as both activities are driven by competition between labels and brands for clothing, perfume and instruments. That’s not necessarily product placement.

Some commercial names become common expressions, such as to hoover, google it, jacuzzi, q-tips and tupperware.

Product placement is not usually an issue with Crime writing, but it’s something I’ve taken into account in penning my Cornish Detective novels. Without meaning to infer that what vehicles my characters drive are in any way desirable, I mention their cars, bicycles and motorcycles more as a way of showing their natures. I’ve read some crime novels that didn’t describe the make of car at all, which seemed daft, for the author happily named the detective’s gun and even which ammunition it was loaded with.

I’m happily working my way through James Oswald’s Inspector McLean series. I’d hazard a guess, that Oswald admires and maybe owns an Alfa Romeo, for his protagonist drives a classic Alfa, wildly unsuitable for his job, and a more modern Alfa only lasted one book before it was destroyed when a building exploded.

I tend not to have my detective protagonist say “google it” when his officers are searching for information while staking out a suspect’s house, instead he asks someone to look on their smartphone. One of my beta readers called me on what she thought might be product placement, as I’d had my main character order a collectable Victorian book on orchards from AbeBooks, which seemed to be the most likely place that he would have found it, and that sounded less clumsy than saying “an online book retailer.” Admittedly, when I wrote it, I thought some readers might benefit from knowing about AbeBooks, but I don’t see any money coming my way! Nor will I get anything for mentioning Taser, the electroshock weapon, which has been used a couple of times in my stories.

How do you handle the issue of mentioning product or company names?

DNA discovery

Crime writers, in particular, will be interested in a startling discovery about DNA, which has been shown to be highly mobile, migrating between objects in previously unimagined ways. Instead of DNA being undeniable evidence that a suspect committed a crime, it could just be that skin cells and bodily fluids were transferred by touching a door handle that hundreds of others later touch.

This could potentially affect us all. Say, for example, that you sneeze while walking along a street. You can’t see it, but some of your sputum attaches itself to a lamppost, which a passerby brushes against, picking up your DNA on her dress. She is murdered that night—your DNA is on her dress. So what, you say, “I’m not a criminal, no one has my DNA on file from a previous conviction.” But unbeknownst to you, your cousin submitted a sample of their DNA to an ancestry tracing service which shares their data with law authorities, and there are enough similarities for you to be arrested! Have you got a provable alibi?

It’s not as if the police are operating with a clean slate. A British forensic researcher found DNA on three-quarters of crime scene tools he tested, including cameras, measuring tapes and gloves, making evidence discovered at a crime scene highly unreliable.

I predict that there will be hundreds of appeals against convictions based on DNA evidence, as a result of this revelation.

Only the Lone Ranger had silver bullets.

Catchy Book Titles

I’ve just finished reading a crime thriller by Chuck Hogan. He’s a highly capable award-winning author, and though I enjoyed Devils In Exile. I thought that the title was terrible—at least, for the story he wrote.

There was one allusion to devils in the entire 312 pages when the protagonist contemplated his crime gang colleagues who were ex-army veterans bringing vengeance on drug dealers. The strange thing is, Hogan missed what I think is a catchier title, for the team are referred to throughout the story as ‘The Sugar Bandits.’

Also, and I’m being picky here, the cover design did the book no favours by being dull and generic.

There are a number of factors that attract readers to a book. The first is the title—that’s the barb on the end of the hook—the plot summary on the front flap, endorsement blurb from other authors and maybe the author bio sink the rest of the hook in.

I realised how crucial a book’s title is, after overhearing two readers talking to two library assistants at my local library. I almost fell off my chair at the computer terminal, when they all said that they choose a book solely on its title—forget the blurb, plot synopsis and author’s photograph—if they didn’t like the title, they wouldn’t even pick up the book!

This made me much more careful about choosing titles for my own novels. I attempt to make them provocative in some way, hopefully nudging a potential reader into wanting to find out more. Who Kills A Nudist? was approved by Colony members as being intriguing. The Perfect Murderer might make a crime fan wonder how the murderer is perfect, for, after all, everyone makes mistakes. The title An Elegant Murder initially plays on a murdered pensioner being found floating in a flooded quarry wearing a 60-year-old ballgown, but the elegance really comes later in how a murder has been artfully concealed. Sin Killers is ambiguous in meaning and consists of two stimulating buzz words. The fifth Cornish Detective novel is called The Dead Need Nobody, which comes from a sad appraisal of a corpse that a forensic pathologist has just autopsied.

Just think of memorable book titles and what they have in common. One thing is brevity, as once the title is more than four words it’s harder to recall—a problem worked around in a series of stories such as Harry Potter, Lemony Snicket and Percy Jackson by making the protagonist’s name the brand label.

There have been some astonishing examples of famous novels having inferior working titles. Gone With The Wind was originally going to be called Tomorrow Is Another Day, while Dickens initially called Little Dorrit by the unmemorable title of Nobody’s Fault. Clumsiest of all was F. Scott Fitzgerald’s original title for The Great Gatsby—Trimalchio In West Egg hardly rolls off the tongue!

I originally thought to call my first novel something like Death of a Good Man, until the nudism element suggested something more salacious.

Have you ever changed the title of your book?

Does the title come first for you, or later once the work is in progress? 

Prizewinners win Prizes!

My jaundiced view of literary prizes is that most of them are marketing exercises to increase the sales of an already successful novel. I understand why this happens, for it’s getting the snowball rolling that’s the hardest part of attracting attention to one’s book, so if it’s already gathered momentum why not add a few more layers with prizes?

It’s worth remembering, that not all prize-winning books have huge sales. Bestselling novels are usually genre writing. There are prizes within genres, of course, but the high profile awards are somehow seen as conferring quality on the winning book which is literary in style. It’s rare for a crime, western, romance, fantasy or sci-fi novel to win a major award.

I’ve read a few of the main contenders for this year’s round of back-slapping by the publishing industry, enjoying them, but it becomes rather tedious when the same titles win lots of prizes. Colson Whitehead‘s The Underground Railway has won the Arthur C Clarke prize for science-fiction, a Pulitzer, a National Book Award and he’s been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

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Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End won the 2016 Costa Book Award and the 2017 Walter Scott Prize.

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Francis Spufford won the Costa Book Award for a first novel, the Desmond Elliott Prize and the Ondaatje Prize for his Golden Hill

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I’m not jealous of these authors (not much), for their entry into literary prize awards happens at the behest of those with vested commercial reasons, so it’s hard to take them seriously.

There aren’t many book awards decided by readers’ votes. One such is the Books Are My Bag Readers Award which is curated through bookshops. Reader Views runs an annual competition aimed at the independent writer who self-publishes.

The Goodreads Choice Award is supposedly chosen by readers, though users of the site have no say in which books are nominated which has led to allegations of bias.

I’ve spent most of this year entering writing competitions, which has meant writing fresh material, as I naively self-published my entire catalogue of short stories and poetry online—effectively disqualifying it from 99% of contests. I’ve enjoyed the challenge of interpreting what the competition organisers are after, and have even felt a slight frisson of anticipation when I see the longlists announced for such awards as the Bridport Prize and the Bath Short Story Award.

It’s easy, as an unknown author lurking in the shadows, to look at the fuss surrounding national and international book prizes and think “This is nothing to do with me.”

It’s all as meaningless as music and acting awards—a bunch of insincere arse kissing run by the merchants selling their wares.

Does anyone agree with me?