Tis the Season…

 

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My advent story calendar really did come to life the way I describe. I saw the lovely jolly snowman made of felt in a charity shop, and thought I would have a lot of fun filling up the 24 little pockets. That was 2009, and my children were aged six, three and one. Then someone else gifted them chocolate advent calendars, and my snowman seemed somewhat superfluous. But I am now very grateful to those unexpected chocolate advents, because without them, I might never have come up with my alternative idea – a story told over twenty-four days, building up to a big finish on Christmas Eve.

That first year, my story was pretty simple. It was the tale of two sisters and their surprise encounter with an elf with a broken wing. The elf’s job is to deliver Christmas lists to Father Christmas, and he needs the girls’ help to get back to the North Pole. The girls were called Ella and Izzy – named after the imaginary friends of my younger daughter. It was a bit of a rushed job, all written out by hand in brightly coloured pens. The episodes were very short, and I kept the language simple in the hope that my elder daughter would be able to read it for herself. I don’t think she did, but they loved the story and my idea was so well received that I knew I would be repeating it the following year.

For 2010, I got more organised. I planned my story in advanced and made sure I could print it off. This enabled me to tell a much more complex story. It was a Dickensian style tale, with an orphan boy and a Scrooge-like uncle, and a stray puppy that gained the ability to talk at midnight on Christmas Eve and deliver a few home truths to the uncle. There was, of course, a very happy ending. (I still think this story would make an excellent play for a primary school Christmas production and once started on adapting it. I might go back to it one day.)

In the forthcoming years, my idea became a regular part of Christmas. I don’t think my children were just humouring me with the excitement of each 1st December to find out what the story was going to be that year. I was very much led by them in the story subjects. The Very Special Christmas Star had been a more serious story, so I followed it up with a fun caper at the North Pole, where two toys were magically brought to life and went exploring. This was particularly popular because the two toys were based on Mr Bunny and Lick, my daughters’ most treasured soft toy companions. The year after that, I used a personal connection of my own, creating a childhood adventure for two characters from the novel I was currently working on. For the next story, The Advent Diary of Amanda Brown, I was inspired by something my younger daughter had once said, which became an incident in the story. Disaster at the Christmas Pudding Factory was a chance to channel my inner Roald Dahl, going for absurd and silly in a way that I would never usually write. The Carol Singer was a short story that I had written many years before; it draws on the great tradition of a Christmas mystery and was inspired by a real bus journey I used to make. And then, because my children still talked about the Bunny and Pup story, I returned to Father Christmas’s workshop and wrote a new adventure in that setting, this time featuring the elves and an unfortunate incident with some holly.

All the time I was writing these stories for my children, I was wondering if there was anything else I could do with them. I thought about approaching publishers and seeing if I could sell the idea, but I knew people wouldn’t really want to buy books to cut up, so publishers wouldn’t find it a particularly commercial idea. However, it stayed in my mind that this was a good idea, and I wanted to share it. As a writer, sharing my stories is my main goal. By this time, I had lots of stories I wanted to share, including a brand new novel. I had already decided that I was going to try self-publishing on Kindle, just because it would be an easy way to share my work between friends and family. With all this material, I was beginning to see that I needed a website to promote my portfolio of work. And with another brainwave, I realised that I could use my Advent Stories as part of that promotion. With my own website, I had a platform on which to share them, offering them for free in return for any extra traffic to my site. If you’re reading this now because you came looking for an advent story, then yay, you’re very welcome. I hope you like my stories. They have brought a lot of pleasure to me and my family and I truly hope they will do the same for you. Now I really must stop – I have a new story to write before 1st December!

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The real Bunny and Pup, AKA Mr Bunny and Lick

 

 

Where do ideas come from?

A novel starts with an idea. Of course, it takes more than just an idea to create a novel – time, commitment, passion, all these things will be needed before an idea becomes a novel. But none of these things will make a novel if there is no idea to get them going. Ideas are the spark that light the flame, which sets light to the kindling, which creates the heat to start the burning, which ends with a full-blown bonfire that can’t easily be extinguished and a sky full of smoke. It only takes one idea to achieve all that, but nothing will happen without one.

Luckily, ideas are abundant and promiscuous. They flaunt themselves flirtatiously, begging to be written. Look at me, they say, wouldn’t I make the most glorious story? You and me together would make irresistible fiction. You would love to write me, readers would fall in love with me. Yes yes, I reply, you are brilliant, awe-inspiring, I want to write you all. But there are so many that most flare brightly for a brief moment, only to fade into obscurity, forgotten before any record can commit them to paper. Only the very brightest and best make me reach for a pen. Those lucky few make it to scribbles in a notebook, or a single page document of computer type. In solid form, they have a chance of life – a written idea can be read and remembered. I have collections of these ideas, going back to my teens. I still love each and every one of them, even though most will go no further than that.

From this collection come the ideas that grow bigger. I can never tell which ones will grow. Some are ones that I really want to write, like Arris. Other times they surprise me, swelling from nothing. Have You Got That Book? did that to me, going from spark to unstoppable inferno in a matter of hours. Others smoulder, building secretly and cunningly. By the time they take hold, they are too hot to leave alone.

That is how my next novel came to me. I had finished HYGTB? and I was meant to go back and finish Arris. But I didn’t. Some other idea crept in, one of those ideas that came from nowhere but waited patiently, until it had built itself so nicely that it couldn’t be ignored. I can’t even say for sure where the idea came from. I have this habit of turning whatever I am doing into a narrative. For example, if I’m cooking a meal, I’m not myself but a character cooking a vital meal for another character, usually with long, involved conversations. Or if I’m picking fruit in the garden, I am the character picking fruit, for some very important reason. Once, on a summer job entering data onto a computer, I became the heroine in an action thriller who discovers a sentient computer. And somewhere in the past, I turned the simple task of making lunch into an encounter between a rich, married woman and an insolent homeless man. The woman knows she is better off than the man, but also knows that when he mocks her marriage, he is not incorrect. He is rude to her, but she still wants to help him, and he seems happy to let her try. It doesn’t sound like much, does it? And yet, from that came a whole new novel.

What kindled this idea were a few simple details that gave it a time and place. It floated around for a long time in a vacuum with no date or location, until it occurred to me that setting this idea in the 1920s made it a story about the aftermath of the First World War. That made my sullen tramp a shell-shocked war hero, running away from horrors that refused to leave him alone. Here was something of real interest for readers, and offered me as the writer so much more scope for depth and intrigue. Suddenly, the simple idea about a rude, homeless man becomes a novel about his journey to recovery. But what about the woman? Why was she involved in this story, and why was her husband not? It was the location that provided her story, a country house with a neglected garden in need of restoration, a perfect place for an unhappily married woman to escape to. What if she discovered a new passion for gardening and horticulture, giving her a reason to stay? That became her place in the novel, saving the garden and the traumatised young man who was seeking sanctuary there. And that private, secluded garden would be the perfect place for an unlikely relationship to blossom. That’s an instantaneous plot, with interesting character development and an unusual romance. With these details fixed, everything else fell into place.

The notebook shows that I first recorded this idea on 18.8.99, with all those details already in place. At this point, I was well into HYGTB? and not really planning what my next novel might be. But by the time that was finished in 2000, it was the post-WWI novel that became my next project. I was now married and living with Hubby in a very small but cosy flat. I was still working at the bookshop and using my days off for writing. By now, I was working on a real computer, but always carried a lined exercise book around with me so I could write at work, or whenever I was away from the computer. One of these notebooks holds the very first words written, a patchwork square of drama. It is followed by notes about the plot, and plans for research that would be required. This entry is dated 14.11.00, so by then, I was well and truly committed to this idea. I did actually do some research too. It wasn’t something I had bothered with before, but I realised that I needed to know more about First World War shell shock than I had picked up from GCSE history and reading the novels of Pat Barker and Sebastian Faulks. I also knew nothing about gardening, and had to furnish myself with enough basic knowledge to make my character’s enthusiasm for the garden seem plausible. But I’m still not one of those writers who do so much research that they can include a bibliography with their novel. I prefer the bits that I can make up. And this novel was something I could really get my teeth into. I worked solidly on it for the next eighteen months, and by the time the first draft was finished, I knew that my style and technique were improving, and that this was the kind of fiction I really wanted to be writing. It was more restrained than HYGTB?, more grown-up, more thought-provoking, or so I hoped. I was very pleased with the first draft. There is no diary entry to show when it was finished but by the time we moved out of that flat at the end 2002, it was printed off and being passed around friends and family and being rejected by agents and publishers. And if you haven’t already worked it out, this is my novel After the Rain. From one little spark to a novel on Kindle. That’s why I love writing.

After the Rain first notes Notice the evidence of work in progress – Patrick (TBC) went on to become Justin.

The Bookshop Years

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It’s all very well knowing that you want to be an author, but it’s not exactly a job you can apply for. Going through school, college and university, I knew that I was going to have to find a job to keep me going until a publisher discovered my work and offered me a publishing deal. Well, that’s how I saw it. The trouble was, I didn’t really know what else I wanted to do. Then, by a stroke of good fortune, I found a job that seemed ideally suited to my ambitions. I was just finishing a post-grad course when the local branch of Waterstone’s advertised a job vacancy. I loved books, I loved bookshops, and it gave me the opportunity to stay in a town that I come to love. Thus began my bookshop years.

I soon learnt that it was more perfect for me than I had anticipated. I was surrounded by books and people like me who also loved to read and talk about books. I was discovering new authors all the time and learning so much about writing from reading. I was meeting publishers’ reps and learning about publishing and the book trade. I was experiencing first-hand what made a book sell. I was even meeting authors at the regular events held at the shop. As I watched them sign copies of their books and listen to them talk about their books, I became even more inspired than ever that one day, I would be doing what they did.

This was a very productive time for my writing. I was writing, using all my days off to work on the Arris novel. At some point, I made a conscious decision not to take up any other hobbies or past-times because I needed the time for writing. Thankfully by now, I was working on a word-processor, something that enabled me to edit and count words – watching that word count go up and up was a constant source of satisfaction to me.

As I said in the previous blog, I had every intention of Arris being my big, break-through novel. But one quiet afternoon in the shop, a little thought came to me. When customers came to the till with an enquiry, they usually said something like “Have you got that book…” which I thought would make a really amusing title for a book. Then customers would be asking “Have you got that book ‘Have You Got That Book?’” The idea amused me so much that I began to wonder what kind of book could have a title like that. Maybe a novel about a bookshop. This was the late nineties and bookshops were quite trendy places, so that was an attractive idea. In fact, it was such a good idea, I realised that I should be writing a novel set in a bookshop. I could make it light and fun, chick-lit at its best. All I needed were some characters and a plot. It must have been a quiet day in the shop because by the end of the day, I had everything I needed. I went home from work that evening and made notes on the whole synopsis and complete ensemble of characters. Reading those notes back, I can see that my original plan was pretty much what I went on to write.

Have You Got That Book? was set in an old family run bookshop called Phoenix Books, in a fictional suburb of London. It was owned by a couple of elderly spinster sisters, who left the business of running the shop to the staff. It was the lives of these staff that would make up the plot, Jilly Cooper style, with their individual stories running alongside each other over the course of a year. There was Owen, a quiet book-lover who ran the fiction section but who would rather be writing and selling his own novels. There was James, the assistant manager, who had given up a career in Academia because of a scandalous affair with a student but was finding success in a career in bookselling. There was Sophie, a shy young girl who ran the children’s section and had a secret crush on Owen. There was Alex, a handsome but modest hunk who unpacked and processed all the deliveries. And into their midst came Sassy, a great-niece of the spinster sisters, who is offered the job of manager, despite having no experience. This is where the action begins, as the bitterness between Sassy and James causes ructions in the shop, disturbing the peaceful equilibrium. Sassy and James eventually make up and have a relationship, only for that to be thrown awry by a visitor from James’s past. Sophie is seduced by a lecherous author who leads her into a life of parties and hedonism. Alex finds himself having unexpected feelings for a friendly male delivery driver, despite the fact that he is in a steady relationship with his girlfriend. And Owen is stuck in the middle, trying to keep the peace and sort out everyone’s problems, at the same time as trying to protect the shop from the competitive rivalry of a large chain bookshop in the same town.

The idea was so whole, and so exciting that I knew I had to write it straight away. It meant pausing work on the Arris novel and throwing myself headfirst into HYGTB? I imagined that I could write it pretty quickly by keeping it light and fun. My characters could be caricatures, without much depth and it needn’t be that long. My plan was to dash it off and cash in on a trend for bookshop settings – this was the time when the films Notting Hill and You’ve Got Mail were being made. It was a band-wagon ripe for jumping on.

My notebook shows that this idea came to life on 28th April 1998. But what happened next was not what I had planned. Those characters that seemed to have leapt into my imagination almost fully formed began to demand much more than a frothy chick-lit treatment. As I began writing, they developed into real people, with back-stories and genuine emotions. I couldn’t just dismiss them as stereo-types. They had human flaws, but that made me like them more and made me determined to make them believable and relatable for readers. My quick chick-lit was becoming an epic. And what I thought would be a speedy project took over the next two years of my life. An old diary record shows that I finished the first draft on 11th April 2000, with 26 chapters and what amounted to over 500 pages. It was the first thing I had finished since 1988, so it felt like a huge achievement. And I also believed that I had created something good that people would enjoy reading as much as I had enjoyed writing.

The advantage of finishing something is being able to offer it to other people to read. Once I had finished my first draft and tidied it up and done some rudimentary editing, I printed off a hard copy and started lending it out to my friends. It was the first time in years that anyone had read my writing, and I was thrilled with the responses I was getting. Yes, they were my friends and family, so they weren’t going to be critical, but I was encouraged by the way they wanted to discuss the characters as if they were real people. To me, that felt like evidence that the novel was working how I had wanted it to work. Surely it would only be a matter of time before I was discovered by the publishers, and like my character Owen, become a famous bookseller author. I started sending it off to publishers and agents, convinced that they would also see the novelty factor of a bookseller writing a book about a bookshop. I could imagine the headlines in the trade press! However, I soon had another new experience to put under my belt – my first rejections.

Reading it myself now, I can see why it was rejected. It’s a great plot and has lots of good elements, but it isn’t particularly well written – not badly written, just not of the standard I aim for these days. It could be improved, but would take a lot of work. And while I’d like it to be read again, I find myself wondering if it should be. It might not have turned out as chick-lit as I first imagined but it is still of that genre; it is highly dramatic and full of passion, in and out of bed. For a provincial bookshop, the characters are rather glamorous and beautiful and all behave perfectly to type, with each person paired up for the romantic happy ending. There’s nothing wrong with that – I love a bit of Jilly Cooper – but I don’t write like that anymore. It doesn’t fit with my later work. But if I were to change it, would I be taking away everything that made it fun and entertaining? Is it worth doing that? It’s a strange dilemma to find oneself with, to have a novel I don’t know what to do with. Until I decide that, HYGTB? remains in a state of limbo.

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Arris – an extract

I know I said that Arris would probably stay my own private Fantasy novel, but I thought I would share a little with the world and give Arris a moment in the sun. This extract is taken from a draft that has not been worked on for over ten years and is reproduced exactly how it was left, unedited, despite any temptations I might have had to tinker with it. In it, Arris, embroiled in the affairs of the Lance family, is taking care of Lewis, who, having made himself unpopular in the town since arriving with the news of Henri Lance’s disappearance, was attacked and severely beaten. 

 

He watched out of the window for a bit, to pass the time, but the interest that provided soon faded. When he took his seat by the bed, he found himself falling asleep. The tensions of the past few days had meant restless and sleepless nights. At one point he jerked up to realize he had been dozing, and then he was on his feet in seconds. He paced around the room, moving quietly so as not to disturb Lewis. He was really hoping that he wouldn’t wake up until Ki had returned. Once more he was drawn to sword. It was as if it was too large and bright for this mundane setting that it kept attracting him to it like gold or jewels. Finally, Arris picked up Lewis’s cloak and flung it over the top, hiding it from his sight. Then he went back to watching at the window. Only two hours had passed, but he watched hopefully for signs of Ki returning.

He sat there for so long that he forgot about Lewis sleeping in the bed. So, when he heard a soft moaning, he was taken by surprise, and jumped up guiltily. He went to the bed, and saw Lewis had opened his eyes and was looking around in bewilderment.

“Ki?” he asked. “Is that you?” It was great effort for him to talk, and he obviously couldn’t see very well through his swollen eyes. Arris moved closer to the bed.

“No, he isn’t here,” he said. “I’m Arris Cole, from Lance farm. We met last night, in the Albatross. Do you remember?”

“No,” said Lewis. “I can’t move.”

“You were attacked last night, in the street,” said Arris. “Someone mugged you. You’re quite badly injured. You’re in the inn.”

“Where’s Ki?” asked Lewis.

“He’s gone to meet your friends,” said Arris. “He was worried that they would be waiting for you. He’s coming back later tonight.”

“Good,” said Lewis, and closed his eyes again.

“Are you alright?” asked Arris. “Can I get you anything?”

“Water,” croaked Lewis.

Arris quickly filled a cup and held it to Lewis’s battered lips. Lewis tried to lift his head but couldn’t, so Arris had to put his hand behind his head and lift him slightly. Some water trickled into Lewis’s mouth, but a great deal went down his neck. Lewis spluttered and coughed, causing Arris to spill even more water. He cursed and flailed around looking for a cloth or towel, but could see none. Eventually, Lewis got his lips around the cup and was able to drink. When he had had enough, Arris put the cup down and began looking for a cloth to wipe the wet from Lewis’s neck.

“How about some beer?” asked Lewis.

Arris hadn’t expected this. “There is none,” he said. “Should I go and get some?”

“No, don’t bother,” said Lewis. “You’d only spill it all down my neck. That would be a waste of beer.”

“I’m sorry,” said Arris. He ended up using a scarf that he had found and mopped up the dampness.

“You make a terrible nurse,” said Lewis.

“I know, sorry,” said Arris. “I’m supposed to go and fetch the physician when you’re awake. They thought it was best to wake till you woke up before they did anything. And the magistrate is going to want to talk to you, about last night.”

Lewis grunted. “I’m alright,” he said. “I don’t need a physician.”

“I think you probably do” said Arris. “Ki thinks you’ve got broken ribs, and a broken shoulder.”

“What could a physician do about that?” asked Lewis. “I’ll heal myself, in time.”

“But it’s best not to take chances,” said Arris. “And you must be in pain. He could give you something for that.”

“I doubt it,” said Lewis. “There isn’t a cure for broken bones or pain so far as I know. A beer would do as much.”

Arris studied Lewis carefully. It didn’t look as if he was boasting. He admired his courage, but he had been given instructions that he didn’t dare not carry out. He got up and was about to leave the room and go downstairs to see the innkeeper, when Lewis called him back.

“Wait,” he said. “Why are you here? I remember you going home last night.”

“Ki came to the farm this morning to get some help from Lance,” said Arris. “He had no money and didn’t know what to do.” He was suddenly excited. “Do you remember me at the tavern last night.”

“I remember talking to you, and you going,” said Lewis.

“So you remember some of last night,” said Arris. “Do you remember Ki leaving?”

Lewis thought for a moment and said, “I think so. Did he go with you?”

“He came out after me,” said Arris. “And then he went home. Do you remember anything of what happened next?”

Again Lewis was quiet for a minute. “I’m not sure,” he said. “I remember Ki not coming back, but I stayed anyway. There was that pretty girl behind the bar.” He paused, thinking more. “I was talking to the girl,” he said. “But someone kept interrupting. Yes, a young man, kept butting in. I thought maybe the girl was his girlfriend. I can’t remember whether she was or not, but I don’t think that’s what he was bothered about. But I got rid of him.”

“And what then?” asked Arris. “What happened when you left the tavern.”

“Oh I don’t know,” said Lewis. “It was much later, and I’d had a skinfull. I can’t remember anything.”

Arris’s feelings at that moment were a mixture of disappointment and relief. He was longing to know the truth, but didn’t want to hear Kal’s name.

“Look, I’ve got to go and get the physician,” he said. “Ki told me to, it’s got nothing to do with me.”

“And bring some ale back with you,” said Lewis.

Arris went downstairs and found the innkeeper. The man was in the bar, and did not look too happy to see Arris.

“Lewis is awake,” said Arris. “We have to get the physician.”

“I’m busy,” snapped the Innkeeper. “He would wake up just now, wouldn’t he.”

“I’ll go,” said Arris.

He went, and was glad to find the physician was more willing to help. He came immediately, and asked Arris questions about Lewis’s state on the way. Arris told him what Lewis had said, and also about his request for ale. The physician laughed. “Well, he can’t be too bad then,” he said. “I don’t think it will do him any harm. This is a right mess for Lance to be caught up in. I heard about his son. It’s a damn shame. With any luck, we should be able to get Lewis on the road again soon.”

Despite his protestations, Lewis remained calm and patient while the physician examined him. He was clearly in a lot of pain and once again Arris admired him for not crying out once the whole time. His teeth were clenched tightly together, and he never took his eyes off the physicians face. When the examination was over, Lewis was the first to speak. “Well?” he asked.

“It’s not so bad,” said the physician. “The bruising is bad, but nothing to serious. Only that cut under your lip will need a few stitches. There are a couple of cracked ribs, and there’s not much I can do for those. It just needs rest to heal them. The main thing is going to be that shoulder bone. I’m going to have to reset it, and that’s going to be painful.”

“You’d better get on with it,” said Lewis.

“Ah, Arris, maybe you would like to go downstairs and fetch a mug of ale for Lewis,” said the physician. “He’s going to need it after this.”

Arris saw the grim look on Lewis’s face, and went immediately. He was halfway down the stairs when he heard a screaming yell from Lewis’s room. He winced at the thought. In the bar, the innkeeper gave him the ale without any questions. He looked a little more concerned now and Arris guessed he had heard the scream too. Slowly he went back upstairs, stopping to knock t the door before he went in.

In the bed, Lewis was still conscious, and breathing heavily through gritted teeth. His right arm lay limply across his chest. His eyes widened when he saw the mug and he struggled to sit up, despite the pain. The physician helped him, and with more skill than Arris had managed earlier, helped Lewis to drink. Lewis drained the mug in one go, then fell back.

“What now?” asked Arris.

“There’s not much we can do,” said the physician. “I can’t splint his shoulder. All I can do is strap his arm tightly to his chest, to stop him moving it while it heals. I’ll need your help.”

“Certainly,” said Arris.

Together, he and the physician lifted Lewis up into a sitting position, and Arris held him while the physician went on with the bandaging. Lewis was very weak now and leant against Arris, reminding Arris of the rag dolls his sisters had had as children. His upper torso was bare for the procedure, and Arris examined it, unable to miss the various scars that marked it. Underneath the fresh bruises, Arris could see many old scars. One ran deep and viscous down his left side and across his belly. Arris ran his fingers along it gently.

“What’s this?” he asked.

“An old wound,” muttered Lewis. “An old friend tried to take my guts out. He nearly did too. That time, I really was lucky.”

“By the looks of it, this isn’t your first beating,” said the physician.

“Far from it,” said Lewis. “And not nearly the worst. Do I shock you?”

“Not me,” said the physician cheerily. “It’s men like you that keep men like me in business.”

“What about you Arris?” said Lewis. “I bet I don’t look so wonderful now?”

“You never did,” said Arris lightly. He realised that Lewis was desperately fighting to stay awake until the physician was finished, and the talking was his help. “I always thought you looked a bit silly, striding around with that huge sword, as if there were going to be any dragons to attack in this village. It didn’t do you much good when you needed it.”

“I was drunk,” said Lewis. “That’s the effect this place has on me. I had to drink myself stupid to make it bearable.”

“I suppose it must seem very dull to someone like you,” said Arris. “But it’s a small village. It doesn’t aspire to anything greater.”

“It achieved it last night,” said Lewis. “It usually takes more than a few pints of ale to floor me. I’d like to meet the man. I should give him a place on my team.”

For once, Lewis’s arrogance didn’t irritate Arris.

“Ok, I’m finished,” said the physician. He and Arris gently lay Lewis back down. “Now I have to stitch that cut under you lip. It won’t take long, but you’ll have to shut up while I do it.”

“Can’t I have another beer first?” asked Lewis.

“No,” said the physician. “Now lie still and shut up.”

When Arris realised his assistance was not required, he turned away, glad not to have to watch. He went over to the window, wondering what was going on at Lance farm. Was Kal found? Had Calla returned? Somehow, he was glad he was not there. He had a feeling that Roberts had planned it to be that way. And he was sure he should feel proud that both he and Lance had felt him suitable to stay with Lewis while Ki was away.

“Alright Arris, you can look now,” said the physician finally, and Arris turned round. Lewis was lying very still with his eyes closed.

“Is he alright?” Arris asked in a whisper.

“I’m fine,” said Lewis, slowly but clearly.

“He will be,” said the physician. “Tell Ki not to worry. I’ll be back tomorrow to check up on my handy work.”

“Nothing could stop Ki from worrying,” said Lewis. “Can I have that beer now?”

“If you think you can manage it,” said the physician. “Come on Arris, you can walk me down and get his ale.”

The physician gathered up his stuff and went downstairs with Arris.

“Is he really alright?” asked Arris.

“Like he said himself, he’s had worse,” said the physician. “But he must go easy for the next few weeks, or his bones won’t heal. Tell Ki that he’s to keep Lewis in bed as long as he can. He mustn’t even think of moving him for at least a week or two.”

“Ki won’t like that,” said Arris.

“Well, he may not, but he doesn’t have any choice,” said the physician. “I’m sure this town can cope with Lewis for another couple of weeks.”

“Ok, I’ll tell him,” said Arris. “Thank you for coming.”

“I’m paid for it,” said the physician. “Thank you for your help.”

The physician left, and Arris got another mug of ale for Lewis. But when he took it back upstairs, he found Lewis fast asleep once more. After the physician’s advice, he thought it best to leave him, and so he sat by the bed and drank the ale himself. Some hours had now passed since Ki had left, and Arris hoped he would return soon, but he couldn’t be bothered to sit and watch at the window. And presently, at his seat by the bed, he fell asleep himself.

The Arris Project

At some point after beginning the Arris novel, I made a huge discovery, something that was to be a massive influence on my writing. In short, I discovered Fantasy Fiction. Up until that point, I had honestly thought that I was the only person interested in Fantasy. I was writing it with no idea who would want to read it; my only hope was that other teenagers like myself might be interested. Then, in my local bookshop, I came across a whole section of books with dwarves and elves, sorcerers, magic worlds, epic quests and even dragons, and these were books for adults! I was amazed and thrilled. Not only had I discovered a heap of books I wanted to read, but I was also reassured that there was market for my books.

I began ploughing my way through authors such as David Eddings, R A Salvatore and Tad Williams, mainly picking books according to which cover art I liked the best. I quickly realised that the quality of writing could vary wildly, and that clichés and tropes were all too common. I also eventually turned to Tolkien and saw what the worst authors were merely copying and the best were developing into something new and exciting. Good fantasy writing was like all good writing – it had to have depth, originality and style. I was determined to give Arris this.

Another thing that I really liked about Fantasy Fiction was the way it was often published in multiple volumes. Trilogies seemed to be the thing, and I was inspired to turn my Arris novel into a trilogy. The first novel was about the magic sword, the second would be about a magic stone and the third would be about the seal that would combine their power. I even had a cast of new characters to take up the story in the second volume. There was Arris’s son Aord, who would inherit his father’s power. There was another, even more evil sorcerer. And there was an increasingly magical team of heroes to help Aord on his mission – dark elves, men who could turn into eagles, victims of powerful mind control. There was a lot of back story but not a lot of plot, but that didn’t stop me beginning to write some stuff. I was learning that writing didn’t have to be chronological – if there was something I fancied writing, I could, no matter where in the story it occurred, and then it could be kept for when it was needed. I call this the “patchwork” method, writing patches ready to be stitched together eventually. I still do it today, even though I often find the original patch will change significantly by the time I come to need it, or maybe even cease to be needed at all.

So, I was writing Volume One – The Mission of the Sword (the novel about Arris), and writing chunks of the second two volumes, as well as sitting GCSEs and A-levels, keeping notes on many other ideas for future novels, some of which I even started, and writing lots of teen-angst poetry. But by 1991, I was developing my new plan, the Arris Project. I even have the written notes I made at the time, laying out what needed to change and how I was going to do it. I wasn’t happy with the work I had done, knowing it was too childish and clichéd and generally not very well written. The subject was getting darker, and to carry that, I wanted more depth for my main characters. By developing their back stories, I began to get under their skin, building up the layers that made them who they were and influenced the way they behaved. Arris had to be more than the innocent boy who accidentally pulls the magic sword from the stone. Imagining the psychological effect of his unhappy childhood, I saw that the mission to find the sword wasn’t just an adventure to him but his first chance to prove himself, to his family, to his friends, and even to himself. When the mission ends in disaster, he is almost destroyed, but then he fights back, finding that true power only exists within a person, not in magic swords. The leader of the mission, Lewis, became a much more flawed but interesting character. He is vain and selfish, but charismatic and compelling. Arris is completely aware of the man’s faults but is drawn to his courage and openness. He has no illusions that Lewis is the hero he thinks he is, but Arris admires him anyway. Rynn’s backstory became a crucial part of the plot. Because she is small and beautiful, she has grown up defending herself from men who would try to take advantage of her, including members of her own family. Even Lewis tried it when he first met her; she only joined the mission because she was so desperate to escape and because she could shame Lewis into training her as a warrior. She and Lewis have a thorny relationship; he would still like to win her, and she knows she can only trust him so far. Arris’s friendship with Rynn ruffles Lewis’s feathers and introduces a new, uneasy dynamic to the group. It all leads to tragedy in the mountain, where the characters’ human flaws are what eventually defeat them rather than evil magic. I’m not sure exactly when it happened but by this time, the dragons disappeared from the plot. The evil sorcerer’s worst power lay in his all-too-human greed and lust. Arris would end up taking the sword from Lewis to save himself, not because of any destiny. And if there was no destiny, there was no trilogy. But what was this, a fantasy novel with no magic? Oh yes, and that was exactly the way I wanted it. I had found the Fantasy novel I wanted to write.

After lots of planning and building backstory, I began writing in earnest sometime after finishing University. I had my first job, and I was using all my spare time to write. It began to feel very serious, and I was fairly confident that my writing had improved by vast amounts. I still do think I wrote some pretty good stuff. However, I never did finish that novel. Something else came along and got in the way – more on that in my next blog. But I think there was another reason why something was able to distract me from this story that I loved so much, something I had been working on for over ten years; quite simply, I fell out of love with Fantasy. I was no longer reading it very often, and I lost interest in the details of world-building that was still necessary for a Fantasy novel, even one without magic. In order to tell the stories of Arris, Rynn, Lewis and Calla, I had to create a world for them to exist in, but my heart wasn’t in it any more. So once again, Arris went off on his mission but never got chance to complete it. I wouldn’t say I have given up completely on the idea of returning to finish this novel, because I still love it very much, but I think it is unlikely. It remains in my head, my own private Fantasy novel, something I occasionally return to for personal pleasure. But what I learnt from developing and writing it was fundamental to my progress as an author. And the character of Arris, my beloved boy, would appear in again in other disguises.

Arris Project 2

Writing in the Garden on a Bank Holiday

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That counts as work, right?

But seeing as today is a day of indulgence, I am “indulging” in some editing – of a novel that I have already published. Oops. Was it really finished? Is anything every really finished? That is the most difficult thing to judge. But I know that when I read one of my novels, I only want to make minor corrections, whereas the other begs for major rewrites. I know in my heart which one I rushed to publish. And I know I am much happier with the rewriting. Being your own writer, editor and publisher is not easy. But I’m not worrying about that today! Happy Bank Holiday. It might not look exciting, but sitting in the garden with my laptop and a glass of wine makes me extremely happy.

Here Be Dragons

Quillon

In the summer of 1988, on holiday in Cornwall, I bought my first dragon. It was a tiny model of a baby dragon emerging from its shell. I was still obsessed with dragons, and even though my second novel had featured dragons, I wanted to write about them even more. And so I began a new story, which my baby dragon was going to play a major role in.

A new story needed a new world, and even though it looked the same as the previous settings, it was completely unconnected to the first two novels. The main character was a boy called Arris, whose destiny was to wield a magic sword that would give him ultimate power over all dragons, a power that he would use in harmony with the dragons and only for good. There would be an epic quest to recover the lost sword before the villain of the story could claim it for himself, this villain being an evil sorcerer with nefarious plans to use the dragons for world domination. Arris would be helped on his quest by a friendship with a dragon that he had saved when he was a boy.

I started writing on 12th August – another carefully recorded date. The story began in Arris’s childhood, and was supposed to tell how the young hero had his first encounter with a dragon, discovering it as a baby and caring for it until it was old enough to release into the wild. It was meant to be about the bond between boy and dragon, however, I soon became more interested in Arris’s family and home life. He was the youngest member of a very poor family, who lived socially and literally on the edge of the small, rural town. His father was a sailor who left the family alone for long periods, leaving his mother bitter and angry, something she took out on all her children but most of all on Arris. He had an older brother and sister who loved him and looked after him, but in trying to make up for the cruelties of their mother, they were often over-protective. Arris was a very quiet, shy boy, half believing that he was as worthless as his mother said he was, but also dreaming of another life far away. After the excitement of finding the dragon, his life seems set on a course of hard-labour helping his brother support the family. He makes his first step towards freedom at the age of sixteen by taking a job at a different farm to his brother. There he makes friends with Calla, the daughter of the wealthy farm owner. He also learns about her older brother Henri, who went off on a mission of adventure to find a magic sword and hasn’t been heard from for years. The other members of the mission then unexpectedly return with news that Henri is missing, almost certainly dead. This is when Arris first meets Lewis, the leader of the mission, who believes the magic sword belongs to him. While trying to comfort Calla, Arris becomes more and more drawn to Lewis. A series of arguments with his family and Calla’s father lead Arris to the conclusion that there is nothing worth staying for and that he should join Lewis, who is still determined to find the sword. On the journey north to the mountain where the sword is believed to be, Arris learns to fight and trains as a warrior; his own qualities of humility, integrity and quiet courage make him a valuable member of the team. In particular, he strikes up a strong friendship with Rynn, a girl his own age, who is tough, cynical and more experienced in the world than he is. She appreciates his honesty and the fact that he doesn’t want to seduce her like every other man she meets. Despite their youth, they were the two who were going to save the mission and bring about its ultimate success.

I loved writing about Arris. He was sweet and innocent, but intelligent and thoughtful. His unhappy childhood had scarred him with low self-esteem and a preference to remain at the edge of things, from where he would watch and observe, usually with a perception that he was quite happy to keep to himself. When he came to trust someone, he did so whole-heartedly, as in his friendships with Calla and Rynn. His naivety and lack of experience held him just on the cusp of sexual maturity, and his feelings for both girls are genuine friendship with a confusing sprinkling of something more. I also loved Calla and Rynn, who shared the same values as Arris but were very different characters; Calla was open, down-to-earth, and utterly warm-hearted, while Rynn was spikey and cool, using a stern exterior to conceal deep vulnerabilities. Arris’s relationship with Rynn developed as I wrote, becoming far more important than I had ever planned. That was taking me by surprise, as I thought I knew exactly how this story was going to be told. Arris would go into the mountain, be the only member of the team to evade capture, find the sword, discover that he was the one with the power, not Lewis, which he would then use to awake the dragons, discover Henri being held prisoner and rescue him, defeat the evil sorcerer and return home triumphant. Except none of that happened. I was writing this novel for the next three years, and over that time, it began to get darker and more serious. As the relationship between Arris and Rynn became more central, new threats emerged. An idea for a horrible plot twist occurred to me, something that would devastate Rynn and ruin Arris’s hopes for the future, but it worked so well that it had to be done. Some ideas just can’t be ‘unthunk’. But it made the story much more than the adventurous frolic it had started out as. I was learning that the “begin at the beginning and keep going until the end” method of writing was neither efficient nor practical. At the same time, I was growing up, studying literature for A-level, discovering new inspirations and learning more about what I wanted from my own writing. Everything I had written so far was childish and silly. For the first time, I contemplated the need for editing, and then decided that there was nothing else for it but to stop and start all over again. That first draft peters out as Arris enters the mountain, with probably the same amount of words I had written for Novel 2 but nowhere near finished. However, I was very up-beat about this decision, and I never felt that all that writing had been a waste, because I had a new plan.

Arris 1988 1st page
Look at that type – eye-aching!

 

 

The Second Novel

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I can’t recall when I finished that first novel, but I do know exactly when I started the next one, because that manuscript is clearly marked with a date – 22nd January, 1988. This was just a few days after my 15th birthday, in the fourth year of secondary school, well into my GCSEs. It also comes just a month after getting my first electric typewriter for Christmas – I was a novelist now and I had big plans. I don’t remember where the idea for my second novel came from. I was still obsessed with fantasy, and I think I wanted something with even more fantasy elements in it. And dragons, because I loved dragons.

It has all the best fantasy clichés in it. It takes place in a made-up world, with castles, knights and a pseudo-medieval setting. There is a nation at war, humans against trolls. The King and the Prince are missing, presumed to be held captive the trolls’ northern, mountainous homeland. The heroine is a plucky princess, who has a chance encounter with a peasant boy who is the only one who might be able to help her rescue her father and brother. Together, they take on this mission, with outstanding courage in the face of unexpected dangers and trials (and dragons) to the inevitable conclusion – I would say happy ending, except it is too painfully won to be happy.

As with the first, I had the basic plot (girl meets boy, girl and boy go to rescue father and brother, battle with the trolls, father and brother rescued, war over, peace restored, girl and boy rewarded and honoured) but my method of writing was still to make it up as I went along. Some of it is typed, some is written longhand, and once something was committed to paper, there was no changing it. I started at the beginning and didn’t stop until the end. Creating chapters was a new development in this novel – sixteen altogether. As for the story itself, it is very melodramatic. As well as building the story as I went along, the characters developed chapter by chapter. And it is very obvious that I like my peasant boy hero much more than my princess, because even though the story is supposed to be about rescuing the king, the main plot is about the peasant boy’s struggle to overcome the difficulties and prejudices that have dogged his life. He is absurdly courageous, and even though I make him suffer terribly, he remains stoic and self-deprecating. He is called Liam, and I can remember really liking the name and wanting to create a hero worthy of it. And oh boy, I gave it all to Liam. It is his story. His actions save the princess, the king, the prince, and the country several times over, usually by some painful sacrifice on his part. He does get his reward in the end, though it is rather quiet and understated. He doesn’t marry the princess. Instead, he goes off to resolve his issues and find a life for himself beyond the problems of his past. I’m still quite proud of the ending, for it shows a step away from the clichés, and an understanding that end of a novel is never really the end of the story. I can also see in Liam the beginnings of certain ideas that I was to return again and again.

Annoyingly, my careful record of the start date doesn’t extend to the end of the novel. It finishes with no clue as to when that happened. Writers – MAKE NOTE OF THESE THINGS, THEY ARE MORE IMPORTANT THAN YOU REALISE! I only know that it must have been finished by the summer of 1988, because that was when I started writing my third novel, which means I wrote this one very quickly. I remember giving it to my friends to read, but I remember less about their reactions. Maybe they didn’t like this one as much because they weren’t in it. I knew it was better than the first and had very high hopes for it. There was an idea for a sequel, when Liam and the princess would finally get together, but it never got more than a few hundred words. The novel remains as it was the day I finished it, unedited, untitled, an artefact full of terrible spelling and burgeoning ideas. I’m incredibly fond of it, even if I have no intentions of ever returning to it. In my progression as a writer, it represents my toddler stage- still unsteady on my feet, copying others to learn the way but determined to go forward on my own.

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Cliché Klaxon – “clad in shining armour” – how cheesy!

 

 

My First Novel

So, I was definitely growing up as a girl who loved reading and writing. My love of The Famous Five had taken me from wanting to be a detective when I grew up to wanting to be a librarian. My best subject at school was story writing; funnily enough, I can’t remember many of the books I was reading at that time, but I can still remember some of the stories I wrote at school. It was the only time I felt like a star, when the other children in the class wanted to hear my stories read out loud. I knew then that writing was something I could do better than most of the others.

In my teens, I also began to be interested in Fantasy. That world of wizards, heroes, kings, princesses, magic, dragons and all the other clichés, really appealed to me. But I felt like a freak, believing that I was the only one. I hadn’t realised that there was actually a massive Fantasy market out there, because the rather limited children’s literature that I was reading did not provide much. I had to satisfy my cravings with The Chronicles of Narnia, and the film Time Bandits, and a rather dreadful cartoon series called Dungeons and Dragons. (I had been introduced to The Hobbit, but being made to read it in first year of secondary school seemed to have only make me hate it – my Tolkien obsession was to come much later.) So, with an absence of books that I wanted to read, I started to write my own.

I look back on it now and can see that I wasn’t just influenced by my inspirations, but was actually directly ripping them off. My story was about a group of children magically transported to another world, very different to their own – that was Dungeons and Dragons. The geography, history and life-style of the world were completely Narnian, and the battle between good and evil came straight from Time Bandits. But I wasn’t worried about that. After all, my story was different, because it was about me and my school friends, dragged away from a school disco, into a world where an Evil sorcerer kept everyone under a spell of cruelty, and only the child of destiny could break the spell. Of course, I was the child of destiny, but I wouldn’t learn that until my friends and I had gone on our quest to find the way home. Along the way, the evil sorcerer would do his best to stop us, and one by one, terrible things happened to my friends until it was just me alone to face the evil sorcerer, and successfully break the spell.

When I started this story, it felt no different to every other story I had started, destined to be begun in a nice thick notebook and never finished. But this time, I did one thing differently – I told my friends about it. After all, they were in it, and they loved my stories. This was the best thing I could have done, because once they knew, they wanted to read it. And as they couldn’t read it until it was finished, they encouraged me to keep writing. So this time, I did. Page after page of lined A4 paper, filled with my italic hand-writing, in one long continuous narrative. I had the basic plot in my head but was making it all up as I went along. And as the page numbers grew, I realised that this one different. This was serious. This was a novel, my first novel, and I was actually now a writer, using school holidays and weekends to advance my story. It took me over a year, but with my friends expecting regular updates, I kept going, until the momentous day came when I finished it. I had written a novel and I was only fourteen years old.

My friends had waited patiently all this time and still wanted to read it, and I was eager to hand over the A4 ring folder that my manuscript was now contained in, ready for their adulation. Even if editing had been possible in those pre-computer days, I wouldn’t have done any, for I had already achieved the most impressive thing ever simply by completing it. I think this fact was enough to impress my friends too, because they all loved it. I would lend it to anyone who expressed an interest, confident that they were going to be blown away by my achievement. And because they were my friends, they didn’t say anything mean about it, so I continued to believe in my own brilliance. And why not – no-one else that I knew had written a novel at the age of fourteen. I had such expectations of greatness, with sequels and film-deals and imagined appearances on Blue Peter. But though I might have been premature in my hopes, I allow myself some pride as I look back on what is technically my first novel, because it was an impressive achievement for a child. More importantly, it taught me that I was capable of writing and completing novels, setting me on a course that brings me to where I am today, with six and a half novels under my belt and this website.

 

STOP PRESS – In planning this blog, I wanted to include a photograph of that novel, still in its A4 ring folder. But when I went to find it, confident that I knew where it was, IT WASN’T THERE! I have no idea when I last saw it, or why I may have moved it. For thirty years, it has been moved around from house to house, always safely guarded, but never read or touched. So at this moment in time, I am extremely perplexed; I know it must be in the house somewhere, but the thought of losing something so precious is very worrying. If I have to turn the house upside down to find it, I will.

 

Welcome to my Shop

The sun is shining, the sky is blue, it is a perfect day to launch a new venture. So this is it, the day I confess to everything I have been up, while trying not to squirm at this blatant self advertising – hey, I’m English, I’m not good at this.

BUT, I can’t help being pleased with myself. So, like a shopkeeper with a new shop, I’m going to put out the bunting, hang the posters and offer my wares. Welcome to the website of M J Schofield, Author, where you will find:

Four books for sale on Amazon

Free Printable stories for Advent Calendars

A link to share my Advent Story idea on Pinterest

Links to the Facebook page, Twitter account and gmail address of MJ Schofield Author

The least embarrassing photograph of me that I could find

My first few blogs, and a promise of more.

 

Come on in, have a browse, everyone is welcome. I’ll just stand over here in the corner, grinning like an idiot. A year ago, I knew I where I wanted to take my writing and I had a plan on how to do it. And today, I have achieved it. I’ve no idea what will happen next, but for now, I’m just going to bask in my achievements.