Review: Plot & Structure: Techniques and exercises for crafting a plot that grips readers from start to finish

Plot & Structure: Techniques and exercises for crafting a plot that grips readers from start to finish
Plot & Structure: Techniques and exercises for crafting a plot that grips readers from start to finish by James Scott Bell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I did love this book. I read it from cover to cover within a week of buying it, and am fairly certain I’ll be returning to it again in the future. The chatty style is entertaining whilst carrying solid tips on how to develop plot lines that keep readers hooked. Highly recommend.

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Review: Hostile Witness

Hostile Witness
Hostile Witness by Rebecca Forster
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I tried really hard not to like this book. I happened to stumble over it whilst searching for something else, noticed it was free and without expecting too much, decided to give it a pop. The first few chapters introduced cliches typical of the genre, harsh, abrasive sentences and off-the-shelf characters, all served with a very large splattering of grammatical errors. But … despite those faults, ‘Hostile Witness’ was very engaging. The writing was intelligent, the characters were well formed and Rebecca’s obvious knowledge of the legal process made it all entirely believable. It ended with a fizzle, rather than a bang, but even so, I’d recommend it, especially for those who like court room dramas.

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Review: Summer

Summer
Summer by Edith Wharton

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoyed this book. Whilst it was wordy in places, the prose was well written and the book moved along at a good pace. One thing to say, though written in 1917, this is a very modern book, both in language and theme, and any book that can age a century and still be relevant is certainly worth a look.

p.s. I read the Gutenberg version of this book. This had a few minor mistakes, mostly sentences not being terminated and rolling into the next, but that’s not to say these aren’t present in other versions.

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Review: The Jewel of Seven Stars

The Jewel of Seven Stars
The Jewel of Seven Stars by Bram Stoker

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was a book of two halves… I loved the start, got really into it, then it almost seemed like Bram Stoker got bored of it himself near the middle. The plot whittled away the further into the book you go, whilst the language took the other path and became far too bloated. After the great build-up, it could’ve been so much better…

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Why Father Christmas didn’t bring a Kindle

 

Santa ClausI’d been very good in 2011. I tidied my room whenever I was told and always ate my greens without complaint, except for sprouts of course but that goes without saying. Father Christmas was very happy and said (s)he’d bring me something special: an e-book reader. Unfortunately, Father Christmas gets confused by anything more technical than the TV’s remote control so (s)he asked me to choose which one was best.

In the UK we have two frustrating problems with technology: it’s overpriced and often it’s not as readily available. Americans can choose from a bucket load of e-readers. You have numerous e-ink Kindles and the new Amazon tablet, you have several models of B&N’s Nook, there’s the Sonys plus many, many others. For us Brits, we have two, bottom of the range, non-touch Kindles (with or without keyboard) and the touch screen Kobo which WHSmith’s started to sell in-store late last year. And that’s it. More of a coin flip that a choice.

“No-one ever got fired for buying IBM…”

Now, one thing I should admit, is that I always tend to support the under-dog, a very typical British attribute. I don’t like to see big guys pushing their weight about and people mindlessly following without considering the alternatives. For this reason, I’ve never bought Apple products; not because I don’t like them, it’s just that I prefer the alternatives. For example, Father Christmas has an iPhone 4 and it’s a very nice phone but I much prefer my Android HTC Sensation. I love my Zune MP3 player and my Acer netbook is exactly what I needed. I didn’t consciously shun Apple, it’s simply that the alternatives suited me better.

I mention this, because I often hear the same one-horse, no alternative argument being used by those who buy Kindles. Post Christmas sales figures would agree with this, they show that Kindles were a soaring success. Over a million e-book readers were sold in the UK over the 2011 festive period and a staggering 94% of these were Kindles. Jeff Bezos, I suspect, may be smiling quite broadly right now.

I agree that Kindles are nice little e-readers. I’ve used an old keyboard Kindle and found it to be a great device. The screen is excellent, the design slick and the choice of books is second to none. The new Kindle definitely looks better than its predecessor and the lack of the dedicated keyboard doesn’t hinder its use. If you like reading and like variety in what you read, then you can’t go wrong with a Kindle.

Ho-ho-ho

So, having said all that, you may be surprised to hear that I asked Father Christmas to slide down my chimney with a Kobo Touch in his sack. Father Christmas didn’t mind, the prices were pretty much the same, the Kobo was only £10 more, and they come in pretty colours so (s)he and my daughter like playing with it as well.

The main advantage for going with the Kobo is stated in the product’s name, Touch. Whenever I use a non-touch device these days, I find myself poking the screen and, to the amusement of anyone watching, waiting patiently for something to happen. Well designed touch screen interfaces can make the user experience so much more intuitive, and the Kobo’s is excellent. My eight year old daughter loves flicking through some of the fairy tale books I’ve downloaded when we’re in the car, it is that easy to use. To me, this was the clincher.

In other respects, the devices are pretty similar. The e-ink is the same, the responsiveness is comparable and so is the capacity. Yep, the Kindle has better book availability, but the Kobo is good enough. Sure, the Kindle has audio support, but I’ve got a phone with an Audible app. The Kindle has better magazine/paper coverage, but again, that doesn’t interest me. So for me, the Kobo was the perfect choice and has been an excellent device which I’m very, very pleased with.

Reading habits

As an aside, I’d read several reports from the Wall Street Journal and others which claim people with e-book readers read more than their paper-based counterparts. I was sceptical about this, but having now got a device, I totally agree. I’ve read three novels in a fortnight, which is considerably more than I would’ve otherwise. This could partially be explained by the ‘new toy’ mentality but e-readers do give more freedom, and not just because of the reader, the technology itself is liberating.

Both the Kindle and the Kobo have smart phone apps which sync with the e-reader. So if I read a few pages on the reader before snuggling up beside Father Christmas in bed, the next day I can seamlessly carry on reading on my phone during the lunch break at work. This continuity allows me to read a book when I want, where I want, without having to wedge a cumbersome paperback into my back pocket, and this flexibility is definitely encouraging me to read more.

In conclusion, regarding the devices, if you’re thinking of an e-book reader, consider the Kobo. Kindles are a good choice, but they aren’t the only choice. If you are a mobile person and enjoy reading, definitely get a Kobo or a Kindle. I can guarantee you won’t regret it.

Happy reading!

About Blogging

Why blog?

When I started writing, I decided I wanted to do it to the best of my ability. I bought the books and scoured the Internet, and over time, in my opinion, my writing improved. Obviously that’s a personal point of view, but for the sake of the hours I put into it, my ego would prefer to believe that’s exactly what happened.

During this time, I concentrated on the creative process, the mechanics of the writing: how to write fluent pros or how to define the motivations for the protagonist, that sort of thing. I plotted and planned, wrote and edited, and produced a series of short stories that I was proud of. These stories were writing exercises and helped find my voice for the larger projects which were bouncing around my head, some of which I have since embarked upon.

Throughout this, I hadn’t even considered the commercial aspect to writing. So as I became more content with my writing, I started to research what I needed to do to get those stories read by as many people as possible. Obviously the financial side played a role, many people could equate to many pennies, but it’s also the pride of being enjoyed by a large readership. During that research, one of the pieces of advice that I came across time and time again, was to create a blog.

Blogs serve many purposes, they’re not just solely marketing and promotional tools. They can share links and other interesting tit-bits of knowledge, they can give your readers a window into your life or they can show how your writing is able to adapt to non-fiction. Personally, the thing I find most helpful about blogs, particularly blogs centered around writing, is to see what other people are doing, how they did it and what traps they either avoided or fell into. This is what I’ve personally tended to blog about so far though I do hope to include some fiction in the near future.

Hosting

So, having established that a blog was worthwhile, the next step was to turn that concept into a reality. The first stage was easy: registering the domain name. I used 123-reg, found the domain name I wanted, set up a direct debit and pressed “go”. That was all done in less than five minutes. There are heaps of registration companies offering these services, both registration and hosting, and these are easy to find and are very affordable.

Luckily a friend of mine offered to host the site so that saved a bit of money. Speaking of which, if you ever need anything web related, speak to him, Allan Jardine; he’s a smart cookie and has just started consulting.

My site is managed by cPanel, a hosting management platform that enables non-technical users to setup and maintain their servers. In just a few clicks I had a basic web page and an email forwarder. So far so good, everything progressing very nicely.

It was then time to think about how I would create and maintain a web site and blog. Fifteen years ago I created my old employer’s web site by using Notepad to hand craft HTML. It was laborious, but it worked. I wasn’t expecting it to be that cumbersome these days, fifteen years is a long time in the computer industry, but then again, I wasn’t expecting it to be as easy as it was either. I knew Word could export web pages, but I suspected I could do better, so I started to look into what other authoring tools were available.

Blogging packages

Google searches kept returning references to WordPress, which I soon learned, like Movable Type and Textpattern, is a blogging package that can also be used to build a basic web site. Yep, you can’t do fancy web-sites with these, but I had no intention of doing anything particularly whizzy, a bit of text and a few images, nothing more than that. After more research, I chose WordPress.

WordPress provides a step-by-step video on how to install their package through cPanel, following that was a doddle. I spent a few hours poking about, making pages then tearing them down, trying the different formats and templates, but generally the defaults were good enough for what I wanted to do. Note that WordPress can host your blog if you don’t mind using their domain name, i.e. your-blog-name.wordpress.org, or you can install on your own server as I did.

By the end of that first evening, the “Welcome to my blog” post was up and running. It really was as simple as that.

Add-on’s

Over the next few weeks I wanted to extend the blog. So more research, more following of simple instructions and finally more stress-free functionality. All for free. Isn’t that a great price? Bear in mind though that it is good practice to ‘tip’ the creator of add-on’s if they’re doing it commercially.

These are the add-on’s I’m currently using, or widgets in WordPress parlance.

  • Mailchimp. Excellent for collecting mailing lists. You can use this to notify your loyal follows when you release your next ‘latest & greatest’. Mailchimp is free for small lists; charges only start when you reach a following where money wouldn’t be an issue anyway
  • Social Sharing Toolkit. Allows articles and pages to be ‘liked’, mailed, tweeted, etc. by all the social networking sites that you’ve heard about, and many that you probably haven’t.
  • User Photo. Allows your mug-shot to be displayed in your posts.
  • Pretty Simple Progress Meter. Shows your readers how far through a project you are

The final one, and in my opinion the most valuable, is Google Analytics. At a basic level, this phenomenal piece of free software allows you to see how many people are visiting your site. In addition, if you’re interested, you can also see how long each visitor spends on each page, where they live and pretty much everything else about them apart from the colour of their underwear.

Try it!

I must confess, I do work in I.T. so I’m not entirely clueless when it comes to computers. But the ease with which these packages can be installed and the functionality they provide, and provide for free, is extremely impressive.

I hope this post has helped show how easy it is to set-up up a blog. Please look around mine and see what you think. I know it won’t win any prizes at the next technology awards, but it’s exactly what I wanted: quick, free and low maintenance.

The tools are there, so give it a try. Get blogging!

Competitions aren’t just about winning…

In the beginning

It was a competition that encouraged me to to write. I’d always planned to ‘knock out a novel’ at some point in my life but there was always something with a higher priority and lower importance that seemed to get in the way (drinking, watching TV, etc.).

As the saying goes, deadlines force results, and for me, it was that first competition deadline that drove my writing ambitions. My first short story, Body Recyclers, was entered into the Bristol Short Story Prize (BSSP) last year. Their fifth competition is being launched this week which I’ll be entering with hopefully better results! I’ll also send a couple of flash stories to the Reader’s Digest 100-Word Story. It’ll be a busy month.

It’s not just about winning…

The point of this article is that these competitions serve two purposes for me, well, three if the entry is successful. If successful, the marketing value would be immense. I would no longer be ‘new author Colin Marks,’ I would be ‘award winning author Colin Marks.’ Plus, I’d win enough money to replace my sick beer fridge, my broken pride and joy.

But even without the prestige of winning, these competitions are rewarding. First, it forces me to try something new, like fitting a complete story into 100 words. All those Creative Writing courses and books instruct us to frequently practice different techniques and styles, but how often do we do that? It’s hard enough to find the time to write what I need to write, let alone find additional time to practice along the way. Competitions force you to do just that. Writing exercises are always done half-heartedly and with little enthusiasm, but when you write for a competition, where the quality of your output will be judged, the motivation level sky-rockets.

The second benefit, is that writing something to a restricted length forces the prose to be tight. The 100 word flash is an extreme case, but even the BSSP’s 3000 word limit is challenging. I’m currently writing a novel which I hope will be ready in a few months, though my self-imposed end-of-year deadline is currently looking frighteningly ambitious. After stripping down my 100 and 3000 word competition entries until they were tighter than the trousers at a Weight Watchers gathering, my novel now feels incredibly bloated. That first edit is going to be brutal, large sections of text will be slashed and any long-winded descriptions will be kicked into the bin.

The challenge

My aim is to enter at least six competitions a year. I will always enter the BSSP as this one is special, it opened my eyes to a whole new creative world, plus I live in Bristol so it’s local! The others will be varied so I can regularly try different techniques. It’s worthwhile and I do benefit from it.

Competitions are easy to find on the web, with sites like Prizemagic and Story giving a comprehensive list for those based in the UK.

So give it a shot, I’m confident you’ll find the experience valuable. And should you happen to win a beer fridge in any of these competitions, remember me, you’ll instantly become my best-friend-forever!