Selfie Love


Two years ago I wrote a blog about co-writing a short story with Eden Baylee for R B Wood’s Word Count Podcast. Eden was 3,330 miles away. She started it, I developed her opening, she wrote a complication for me, and I wrote the conclusion. The end product worked well but the writing experience was interesting in that we each knew that we’d have to relinquish control over the characters and maybe find that when they were handed back they might be totally different from how we’d imagined they’d be.

In fact, it was a satisfying experiment and there were no obvious clashes between our relative styles and the way the whole thing evolved.

But we’ve done it again, and this time the experience was very different. The previous effort was written in the third person (a narrative position we shared). This time, the story takes the form of an exchange of emails between Laura and Ross, who’ve spent an illicit weekend together. That means Eden and I were writing something with two totally separate first person narratives and each of the characters was at the mercy of the other. As Ross, I could start by saying what I liked but, until I heard Laura’s response to it, I had no idea what direction I’d be able to take. It was, of course, the same for Eden as Laura. And although it’s assumed that a first person narrator can offer a fuller, deeper insight into his/her psyche, it’s complicated when another person’s subjective opinion of him/her is thrown into the mix. Paradoxically, the added first person brings more authenticity to each character.

If you’d like to see the full text, it’s on Eden’s website.  And I recommend experiments like this. As well as setting interesting challenges which need to be met to make any progress, it causes one to look more closely at how the whole writing business works, to think more about the thin line between narrative control and chaos. It also illustrates something I’ve said before: writing is like acting. To create a legitimate character, we have to share his/her space, sense his/her reactions to things and act (write) accordingly.

If you have done any of this sort of thing, I’d love to hear how you found it.

Puzzle time

Puzzle time


Facebook is a strange place for all sorts of reasons – some good, some less so. You can, for example, find out which 18th century politician, Renaissance painter, or Jane Austen character you most resemble just by answering a few questions. Really useful, eh? Other questions help you decide whether you’re a porcupine, a swallow-tailed butterfly, or a haddock. Some ask you to combine the name of a relative with the make of car you drive to reveal what you’d be called if you were in a Quentin Tarantino movie. And they’re all part of the daily reality of millions of people.

One of those transmigrations happened to me recently when, by giving the wrong answer to a puzzle, instead of remaining the small wooden grotesque which my mugshot identified me as, I had to become a llama for a day. I asked my nephew, Joe, to draw the animal for me and he did a great job so that, for those 24 hours, I was, in fact, quite attractive.

Another part of the punishment was that I had to explain why I’d come over all South American camelid, and that meant repeating the challenge as part of my own feed. The upside of that was that it triggered far more comments than usual so it seems that Bill Kirton, pillar of the community and writer of high quality literature, is far less interesting than Bill Kirton, llama.

Anyway, in the course of mentioning that fact, I suggested I might concoct some puzzles of my own. I don’t mean those in which men have to row wolves, foxes, chickens, goats, sacks of grain and the latest iphone across a river one at a time without any of those still on the banks eating one another or stealing the man’s bank account details. They’re too easy. I prefer the type which only have an answer when the responder provides one that fits.

As writers and readers, we use words to create our worlds, our truths. Faced with extremes of any sort, including absurdity, our impulse is to explain them, bring them under control, impose some order, try to make them make sense. And that’s exactly what the sort of puzzles I’m talking about demand of us. The writer provides the text, the reader analyses it and gives it coherence. So here’s an example of the sort of thing I mean. All you have to do is tell me what’s going on in this scenario.

A man is carrying a yellow box very carefully. He walks up to a cottage door and knocks. The door is answered by a teenage girl with dreadlocks. Over her scruffy clothes she’s wearing a spotless white apron. She keeps her hands behind her back as they talk.
‘Is Marie-Louise in?’ says the man, ‘I brought this for her’.
‘Let’s see,’ says the girl.
The man opens the box and holds it towards her. She looks inside. It’s empty.
‘They’re all asleep,’ she says. ‘You can’t come in.’
She closes the door. The man takes off his shoes, puts them inside the box, leaves it on the doorstep, and walks away.

A hat

I’m offering two of my ebooks as prizes: one for what I judge to be the most inventive, entertaining (or some other adjective) explanation; the other to the person whose name will be picked out of a hat (see picture). So if there’s only one response, that person will get two books, two responders will get one each, and if there are no responses at all, I’ll cry, sulk a lot, drop-kick puppies and kittens over fences and join UKIP because I hate everybody.


Not again surely.

Not again surely.

tl-webThe blog has suffered because it’s been a busy summer. But I have a new book to flog  so it’s time to juggle priorities. I mentioned in my last posting that The Likeness had taken me four times as long to write as any of the previous ones, and now a couple of early reactions to it have set me  asking myself different questions about it. So far, it’s had two reviews, one of them an assessment for acceptance by Awesome Indies, and they’ve both given it 5 stars and been very complimentary. The most recent one,  however, says that,

‘the ending is one that intrigues the reader about what will happen next – I do hope this is not the last time we’ll meet these powerful characters’.

In fact, a couple of months ago, in a finely detailed analysis of the ending of the first draft, one of my beta-readers wrote that the story’s still not over. Specifically, she  said that Helen,

‘will not be taken seriously in 1841 Aberdeen, but possibly in another world.  The New World?  Or Europe?  Seven years later was the Europe of the Revolutions.  Aren’t Helen and John perfect for reflecting that?  As a benevolent Capitalist, Anderson would realise he must branch out and have representation overseas.  So, Vancouver, New York, Boston or Marseilles? Helen and John are the real pioneers.’

Given that I had no intention of writing even this sequel, the idea of a third in the series seems absurd. And yet, and yet…

When you’ve spent a long time with characters, seen them through a few crises, watched The Figurehead_fronttheir relationship grow, they really do exist for you, and you get curious about them. So far the two books have taken them to an arrangement that seems to satisfy them both without unduly worrying Helen’s parents, but will it work? How will Helen’s involvement in her father’s business progress? Will the ideas she gathered in The Likeness prove to be practical and successful? And also, there’s no question but that it would be very interesting for me to transport them to North America or Marseilles and either find out what happens to all those emigrants flowing out of Scotland or indulge my Francophile tendencies.

I have friends who write sagas and I’ll be asking them whether they decide right at the start that there’ll be a certain number of books or whether what the characters do decides that for them. Mind you, on that basis, the series might not end until the characters died. But even then, what if they’d had offspring? They’d still be on their various journeys. And, since the pattern in each book is that, while all the other stuff’s going on, John also solves the problem of a mysterious death, the repetitive structural aspect might begin to stretch their credibility. I mean, ‘Bye Honey, I’m off to do some more carving’, is a bit different from ‘Bye Honey, I’m off to solve a mysterious death’.

Writing fiction is endlessly fascinating. I’ve created characters in other books, with other ages, different contexts, most of them more or less interesting, but the way in which these two people, Helen Anderson and John Grant, have come alive for me is new. I think both the books in which they appear have satisfactory endings, with all the loose ends tied up, but the sheer charisma and character, especially of Helen, suggest that there could be plenty more adventures for them. It’s just a pity I have to write them.