Saturday 19th October: The Black Feathers, Oliver Daldry, David Booth – Live at the Cottage

The Black feathers

The Black feathers

How do you review a friend? This thought was prominent in my mind before the opening Saturday’s Live at the Cottage. I’ve known David Booth a few years , have sung with him, and now he was  about to open the night’s entertainment. What if he tanked? I had no need to worry. David is one of those annoyingly talented people who can turn their hand to anything. Initially a drummer, he has added singer-songwriter, guitarist, sound engineer, record producer and promoter to his list of achievements and he is damn good at all of them.

David Booth

David Booth

There is no hiding the influence the Finn brothers have had on his songwriting, especially his older songs like the upbeat ‘Find our way back home’ and ‘The left behind’, where his bitterness at seeing childhood friends caught in the trap of pre-programmed expectation of what they can achieve in life is accentuated by the choppy guitar rhythms made popular by Crowded House at their angriest.

Yet he is not afraid to show his more introspective side. Love will win every time was a romantic, thoughtful number enhanced (as in all his songs) by excellent harmonies with Roisin O’Hagan. For me, though, my favourite song was his last , so far untitled, which intertwined impressionistic lyrics of a Suffolk coastal scene with the greater ebb and flow of life itself. It showed how far David has come as a songwriter as he created a sound truly of his own and was probably the closest we  got to see of the David I know in his music.

This guy is going to be huge! That was my first reaction to hearing Oliver Daldry and I haven’t changed my opinion. He is just fantastic. This young singer-songwriter – he’s only 19 – has the world at his feet. He is able to get the the complexity and rhythms of two guitarist from one acoustic guitar whilst at the same time knocking out catchy tune after catchy tune. His music is reminiscent of Vampire Weekend in that he uses similar rhythms to the American band, but he has a touch of Nick Drake to his playing which brings a freshness to the mix.

Daldry’s album, ‘The Boy Who Fell’, is out on iTunes for £2.49 and he is touring small venues around London and the East of England. All I can say is buy the album and go and see him in this type of venue while you still can. He won’t be playing them for long.

The Black Feathers are a duo made up of Ray Hughes on guitar / vocals and Sian Chandler vocals, who is also the main songwriter. Their music combines the British and Irish folk tradition with a transatlantic sound that in some cases wouldn’t be out of place in the Grand Ole Opry. Their songs are all based around their tight, sliding harmonies over a pared down guitar; a sound drifting between alt-country to being more evocative of some of the folk based vocal groups of the counter-culture revolution depending on the song.

They were technically fantastic, incredibly polished and all songs were well constructed and excellently performed. My problem was, it left me cold. No matter how impressed I was with their performance and ability, I just couldn’t get into their music. I think, for me, it was a little too polished. The songs ticked all the boxes in my head, but didn’t hit me in my heart (yes, despite what I’m writing, I do have one). There were times, like in ‘Blind’ and ‘Breaking’ where I felt a hint of the muddiness and rawness I prefer, but as much as I tried, for me it just didn’t click.

BUT (and it is a big but)…

I know I was very much alone in this opinion. Everybody else in Dove Cottage loved it, and for the majority it was the first time they had ever seen the Black Feathers perform. I spoke to a number of people after the gig and every single one was blown away by what they had heard. “Absolutely brilliant”, “those harmonies were stunning” and “fantastic songs and performance” were just a few of the comments I noted. And instead of feeling upset about being out of sync with the rest of the audience, I’m really pleased,  because having met Ray and Sian after the gig I found the two of them to be genuinely lovely people, and I wish them all the success in the world. So please, visit their website, take part in their Kickstarter campaign and help these two find the success they deserve. And when they do make it, I will be the first to offer them my congratulations.

 

I am not a terrorist threat

We're watching you (source: www.100open.com)

Are they watching me? (source: http://www.100open.com)

I looked out of a front room window the other day to see two Police Community Support Officers* staring in the direction of my house. Yesterday I could swear a man was following me as I walked down our village high street. I stopped at one point and stared directly at him, only for the man to smoothly enter a shop as if it was his intended destination all along. Why should this bother me, you may ask? Well here are a few Google searches I have made recently **:

  • How to make a bomb
  • The range of a sniper rifle
  • The inside of 10 Downing Street
  • Standard response to a terrorist threat

I’m not stupid. I realise how this looks. I must have pressed every MI5 hot phrase as I’ve researched various topics for my latest book, a contemporary thriller in the mould of The Day of the Jackal. I initially thought about searching via a proxy server, or the TOR network to disguise my identity. It was a brief thought. I can’t think of anything more suspicious than searching these subjects anonymously. So I searched via Google, not even using the private browsing settings, safe in the knowledge that however suspicious it may look, my behaviour was entirely innocent. Except now I’m worried that GCHQ and the NSA may think that I’m running a double bluff, hiding my ‘true’ intentions in plain view. This is what writing a thriller does to you, and I haven’t properly started yet.

All this raises the question: how do thriller authors research their subject without ending up classified as a terrorist threat? In the old days life was both more difficult, and so much easier. If you needed to understand a subject you had to either go to a library or speak to somebody who knew. Frederick Forsyth spent years cultivating contacts in the military and security services. David Cornwell, better known as John Le Carré, used to work for MI6. Nowadays nearly everything you need to know is available on the internet, yet as we now know from Edward Snowden‘s revelations, there is very little that takes place on the internet that isn’t monitored.

Now that's what I call realistic (source: my legal.proboards.com)

Now that’s what I call realistic (source: my legal.proboards.com)

The thing is, I have no interest in the detail of how to make a bomb. What I need for my writing is to know are the basic components, what they look like, their smell and feel; the risks if they are not handled correctly. It’s the same for the inside of 10 Downing Street. I’m not interested in the layout because it is highly unlikely that the majority of my readers will ever step foot in the place  (can you see what I’m doing here, imagining thousands of readers. That’s positive thinking for you). What I would like to know is what’s the ambient temperature inside? Is it a busy building with lots of comings and goings or is it quiet for the majority of the day?  I need  touches to make what I write plausible. What I don’t want to do is bog the reader down in unnecessary detail (or give schoolboys bomb making tips).

I’m shortly off on a fact finding trip to London, to scout out a few locations I’ve already identified with the help of Google Maps. It should be a fun day, except I’m worried that I’ll be demonstrating exactly the same behaviour of the 7/7 bombers. The thought of taking a backpack is a non-starter, and then there is the question of what I should do if I think somebody is following me. Should I take double lined jackets and different hats that I can quickly turn inside out to lose my tail? Should I jump off tube trains just as the doors are closing? Should I steal a motorcycle, ride it over the roof of the Grand Bazaar before jumping on top of a train which I’ll wreck with a large digger? Maybe not.

So, if you are reading, guardians of our democracy, I’m just trying to write a book. I love my country and am a pacifist unless severely provoked, where I turn into a sprinter. Of course, if any of you would like to give me a call so i can pick your brains about where you work, I would be extremely grateful. You know my number.

*My oldest son asked me if PCSO’s were policemen. I said no. He asked what they were. I replied “Well you know Santa has elves, well these are to policemen what elves are to Santa.

**Actually, they were more detailed than these, I just don’t want to give the plot away.

 

Top ten tips for first time fiction writers

and they all lived happily ever after. The End (source:www.alexalovesbooks.com)

and they all lived happily ever after. The End (source:www.alexalovesbooks.com)

Something unfamiliar is emanating from my blog this week. Contentment. I’ve finished my book and it is now with my editor (as I like to call him). It has been a long and sometimes arduous journey but I have finally made it. Not that I’m completely happy, but I’ll talk about that more in a bit.

So, seeing that NaNoWriMo is coming up and many writers will be in the same situation I was a year ago, I thought I’d pass on my top tips, novice writer to novice writer. These are the key things I have learnt. Now, this list may well change with more experience, but these are the things that I wish I’d known before I had started.

0. You can do it

This isn’t a tip but a statement of fact. You. Can. Do. It. Can you be the next Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Hugo or Hemingway? Probably not. Will you sell books in the millions like King, Brown or Rowling? Highly unlikely. Will it be any good? It depends on who is judging. But you can write a book, whether it takes you a few months or a few years. Anybody who tells you otherwise is a big fat liar, and that includes you.

This quote more than any other kept me writing (source: www.redbubble.com)

This quote more than any other kept me writing (source: http://www.redbubble.com)

1. Learn your craft

The best way to learn how to write is to write, in the same way as the best way to learn how to drive is to get in the damn thing and put your foot down. But as any driver will tell you, it isn’t as simple as that. The good news is that there’s lots of help out there. The bad news is that much of it is contradictory. There is no right way to write a book (despite what many snake oil salesmen will tell you), but there is a right way for you. So read up on the fundamentals, learn about character arcs, point of view, the three act structure and pantsing versus plotting; then pick something that resonates and go for it. I prefer learning on the job, so even though I had already started, I continued to read articles on writing, how to books, lists like these; and picked out what made most sense. If I had my time again there are many things I would do differently, but I don’t regret the time I have spent learning my craft and will continue in my efforts to learn more.

2 Write the book you would like to read

If you hate historical romance or young adult vampire epics, don’t write them (unless, of course, you are writing satire, in which case go for it and make sure the knife remains drawn and bloody). In my book I wanted to play around with two ideas: if we can truly live forever, and whether our political processes prevent us from making the big decisions. Now I love to read genre fiction, so writing a political thriller set in the near future allowed me to play with the ideas in a setting I enjoyed.

3 Decide on what narrative point of view to use before you start

Point of view is a tricky thing to get to grips with, especially if you have never written before, and you will mess it up at some point during your journey. What is important, though, is to choose your point of view and stick to it. Changing the POV of a book once written is a lot of work. If you are writing a grand, sweeping epic then 3rd person is normally recommended; a more intimate portrayal of a personal journey may be better in first person. Many first time writers prefer first person, because it is easier to write. I liked the style chosen by George R R Martin for a Song of Fire and Ice series, which is a close 3rd person point of view with each chapter giving the viewpoint of a single character. However, there were times when I felt strangled by this choice.

4 Don’t stop writing until you get the story down

Once you start writing the story, don’t stop until you finish. This doesn’t mean you should stay strapped to your keyboard whilst taking espressos intravenously. What I mean is never go back over what you have already written until it is finished. Don’t worry about spelling, grammar, wild asides or changing your mind about going on; just write. You can always go back and change things during the edit at your leisure. What is important is to channel all that creative energy and enthusiasm into getting the story down.

5 Do not be surprised if the story ends up different to how you planned

As I was writing my first draft a funny thing happened; my characters started saying and doing things that I hadn’t planned. I had plotted out how the story would unfold but the characters were having none of it. Somehow, they started controlling me, making me write dialogue or action scenes that were absolutely right for the character, but caused major issues with my original plot. Also, the more I wrote, the more I realised that the story wasn’t about my main character, but about a supporting character instead. The point is, it doesn’t matter whether you are writing genre fiction or high browed literary fiction: characters drive the plot, not the other way around, and if the plot changes, so be it.

6 Leave it. Go off and do something else.

The most consistent piece of advice I read was that once you have finished the first draft, put it away somewhere and don’t look at it for a while. This doesn’t mean don’t write, just don’t work on your manuscript. I left my first draft for 6 weeks and when I finally went back to it, it was like reading somebody else’s work. This made the editing a lot easier

Editing is alchemy, turning Hemingway's shit to gold (source: prowritingaid.org)

Editing is alchemy, turning Hemingway’s shit to gold (source: prowritingaid.org)

7 Edit ruthlessly, but always keep in mind pace, structure and flow

There are many good books out there on how to edit. The one I found helpful was Self-editing for fiction writers by Browne & King, but there are many others. The one lesson I would pass on from this process is that while you are always told to cut hard, remove all dead words, keep description to a minimum etc. it is important that you continuously review your changes and their impact on the whole. For example, I would read out each sentence and trim out any unnecessary words. This made my sentences trim, sharp and to the point. When I read back what I’d written my prose was all over the place. Each individual sentence was fine, but they didn’t flow as a whole. My brain felt like a car driving over a potholed road, all jumps and jags as we rumbled over the prose. And this was after my fourth edit.

8 Once you have finished your first edit, give to someone else to read

You may be unhappy, embarrassed even at the way it is written, but this is the time to let somebody you trust read your story. I chose three close friends, all book lovers, who I knew would have different perspectives on what they look for in a story, but importantly wouldn’t be afraid to tell me what worked and what didn’t. Their help was invaluable, because one of the biggest issues you have as an author is that you know the story. You know the characters inside out, what motivates them to do and react as they do. You also know the world they inhabit. What you don’t know, or can’t see, is how much of that you have successfully placed on the page. In my case, I had cut a very large boring descriptive passage from my book, fun to write but all ‘tell’ and no ‘show’. What I didn’t do was add back a key plot point. I couldn’t see it because I didn’t need the point explained to me. I knew it. My readers, however, didn’t, leading to much confusion.

9 Take on or ignore the feedback from your test readers – but be honest with yourself

Your test readers are there to let you know what doesn’t work with your book. Sometimes their advice can be hard to take. It is at this point you have to be honest with yourself. Your goal is to write the best book you can. Was their feedback correct or not? If not, ignore it, but if it was, swallow your pride and make the change; you’ll be grateful you did.

Now for the next one (source: shareasimage.com)

Now for the next one (source: shareasimage.com)

10 Let go

Your story will never be perfect, because if you are looking for perfection then your story will never be finished. At some point during the editing process you will find yourself changing your writing without adding any value. It will be different, but not better. It is at this point you need to let go. You’ve done your best, now it is time to let your progeny out into the world (or lock them in a draw never to see the light of day if that is your preference). Don’t waste any more time, because you are anything like me you will have the next one to think about.